Appeals court: Bond forfeitures can’t be reduced

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Wilson County Schools will receive nearly $19,000 in additional bond forfeiture money after the N.C. Court of Appeals overturned a district court judge’s decision to reduce forfeiture amounts in three cases.

A unanimous three-judge panel vacated three of District Court Judge John Covolo’s rulings last week and applied the 2017 precedent set in State v. Knight, an appellate case that prevents trial courts from modifying the amount of a bond forfeiture.

In one case, defendant Kelly Summer Lewis failed to appear in Wilson County District Court and the clerk of court issued an $18,000 bond forfeiture notice to bail agent Ronald M. Loftin Jr. and surety Agent Associates Insurance. Loftin filed a motion to set aside the bond forfeiture.

Loftin provided court records showing a new trial date for his defendant had been set, but Covolo denied the motion because Lewis didn’t attend court proceedings on at least two previous occasions.

While Covolo didn’t find that any of the statutory requirements for exempting Lewis from bond forfeiture had been met, he reduced the forfeiture amount from $18,000 to $100, according to the appellate opinion.

The Wilson County Board of Education appealed Covolo’s decision to reduce the surety’s payment. Under state law, public school districts receive the proceeds of bond forfeitures.

“We recently addressed this same issue in State v. Knight, a case which is factually indistinguishable from the instant case,” Judge Rick Elmore wrote for the unanimous panel. “We held that ‘when a motion to set aside a forfeiture is denied under (state statute), an obligor may not be held liable for less than the amount agreed upon pursuant to the bond it actually executed.’”

North Carolina law allows courts to set aside bond forfeitures for one of seven reasons and “none other.”

“Thus,” Elmore wrote, “the trial court has no discretion to grant relief for a non-enumerated reason.”

In all three cases the appellate court vacated, Covolo ruled that the bond forfeitures should not be set aside, but he lowered the amount of money the surety would have to pay.

The $18,000 forfeiture in State v. Lewis was reduced to $100. A $400 bond forfeiture was halved to $200 in State v. Harris and a $1,300 penalty was cut down to $450 in State v. Fields.

Judges previously considered extenuating circumstances, including steps the bond agent had taken to locate absent defendants, in choosing how much of the forfeiture amount to award. The Court of Appeals ruling in the Knight case, in which District Court Judge William C. Farris had reduced a $2,000 forfeiture to $300, established that trial courts cannot exercise that discretion.

Court of Appeals Judges John M. Tyson and Valerie Zachary joined Elmore in his opinions for the three Wilson cases. The appellate panel remanded them to Wilson County District Court and directed the court to enter orders awarding the full bond forfeiture amount.

Since judges relied on the 2017 Knight precedent, the three opinions handed down Tuesday are unpublished, meaning these derivative decisions are not binding on lower courts.