signature bondrecognizance bond

What is a Signature Bond and When is it Used?

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“A signature bond, often called a recognizance bond or no collateral bond, is one of the four main court bonds that a judge might set at a court hearing.  Essentially  a court bond is a legal agreement, or promissory, that the defendant presents him or herself at court to face trial at a future date decided by the judge.  The courts allow the posting of bonds because trial dates may be some time after the defendant’s initial court hearing, and in the absence of court bonds potentially innocent people would have to spend this time in jail. If the defendant does not return to face trial then he or she either forfeits cash or property or are issued with a fine.  There are four different types of court bonds that an individual accused of a crime may be allowed to post.”

By Johnny Bevers

Types of Court Bonds

signature bond being signed

A Cash Bond:  These require the defendant to post with the court a specified amount of money that will be returned after the trial. If the defendant skips or jumps bail, that is, if he or she does not appear at the court to face trial, then they forfeit their cash bond to the court, and a judge issues a warrant for their arrest.

A Property Bond:  In certain cases a judge may agree to a property bond en lieu of cash. If the defendant skips trial, then the court may sell the property in order to retrieve its value.  This is in addition to issuing a warrant for the defendant’s arrests.

A Bail Bond: A defendant may post a bail bond, often called a surety bond, when he or she cannot afford to post the amount of money set by the court.  In this case a licensed bail bond agent, or bail bondsman, may instead pay the bond for a fee of between 10 and 15 percent from the defendant. If the defendant does not appear to face trial then the bail agent forfeits the amount of the entire bail bond and a warrant is issued for the defendant’s arrest. In circumstances when it appears likely that a defendant will not be returning to face trial, and the bail agent may forfeit his bail money, the bail agent may choose to employ a bounty hunter to track down the defendant and ensure he or she faces trial.

A Signature Bond:  A signature bond merely requires the defendant to agree to turn up at the court at a specified future date to face trial. The defendant doesn’t have to put up any cash or property, but he does have to sign a promissory agreeing to return to the court to face trial. A warrant will be placed for his arrest and a fine levied should he not turn up for his trial. Because he is not required to put up any cash he does not require the services of a bail bondsman.

Signature Bond Terms

Although defendants do not have to post any cash with the courts when posting a signature bond, it does have a monetary value attached to it.  This amount is decided by a judge at the defendant’s court hearing.  This amount represents the fine that will be levied should the defendant not appear at his trial. For a crime of, for example, vandalism, the judge may set a signature bond of $500.  Generally speaking, signature bonds are for relatively small amounts of money.  There may also be additional terms attached to the signature bond such as restrictions on travel, home confinement, sobriety or a curfew.

When Might a Judge Agree to Set a Signature Bond?

bail-bonds-dog behind bars

A judge may set a signature bond when confident that the defendant will return to face trial despite their assets not being at any immediate risk. The judge would also need to be assured that the defendant did not pose a danger to anyone else while at large in the community.

To reach a decision the judge will consider the following questions:

  • Is there a flight risk?  That is, is it likely that the defendant will attempt to leave the state, or even country, in order to avoid trial?  When a suspect does not pose a flight risk, it is more likely that the judge will agree to a signature bond.  The court will look at the defendant’s personal circumstances to determine the possibility of flight.  For instance, does the defendant have a job?  Is the defendant part of a community?  Does the defendant have family in the area? If the answer is, “yes” to any, or most of these questions then the defendant is less likely to pose a flight risk and the judge may set a signature bond.
  • Does the defendant have a criminal record?  If the defendant has no history of being in trouble with the law, then the judge is more likely to issue a signature bond. Even if the defendant does have a criminal record, he may still be offered a signature bond if these crimes are non-violent, misdemeanor crimes.
  • Is the alleged crime relatively minor and non-violent?  If this is the case then the judge is more likely to set a signature bond. Examples of crimes that judges may consider relatively minor include: vandalism, drug possession of small amounts, trespassing or driving under the influence. Generally, judges are more likely to set signature bonds for misdemeanor charges than felonies.

When Will a Judge Not Issue a Signature Bond?

Money Settlement by judgment - gavel atop currency.

It is unlikely that a judge will issue a signature bond if a defendant poses a serious flight risk, is accused of a serious crime, has a criminal record of violent crime or has missed previous court dates.  For example, a hypothetical John Doe who is accused of manslaughter, missed his last court date where he was to face charges of assault, has no family in the area or ties to the community and possesses a second home in a foreign country, is extremely unlikely to be set a signature bond.  Instead, this type of defendant is more likely to be set a significant cash bond and may need to employ the service of a bail agent.

Consequences of Missing a Court Date

photo of cash missing court could cost you

The consequences of missing a court date vary somewhat from state to state, but in all cases are severe.  Anyone who has signed a signature bond is legally obliged to return for trial and to abide by any additional conditions set.  A failure to return for trial will result in a warrant being issued for the defendants arrest as he is now a fugitive from the law.  When the defendant, who is now a fugitive, is eventually arrested and brought before the court, the judge may bring further charges against him.  It is also extremely unlikely that the defendant would, this time, be set a signature bond.

From a defendant’s point of view, a signature bond is often seen as the best kind of court bond a judge can set; the defendant is not required to post any collateral with the court or to pay a bail agent a hefty fee to post bail for them.  In addition, setting a signature bond implies that the court views the defendant’s alleged crimes as being minor.  Consequently, the probability of the defendant avoiding a jail term is high.

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