COLLIER COUNTY — Just days before his criminal trial, suspended Naples bondsman Joseph Houston turned himself in at the Collier County jail Wednesday and was then denied a release on bond during an emergency hearing.
Houston’s defense attorney, Donald Day, said he’d file an appeal to have the question quickly decided after Collier Circuit Judge Frank Baker denied his motion to set bond.
“The law is the law,” Day said. “This is a way to hold him in jail.
“I’m not concerned about getting him out,” Day said of the 2nd District Court of Appeal deciding the case and freeing Houston before Monday’s trial. “I’m concerned about resolving the legal issue.”
Houston’s trial involves two of his bail bond firms, Express Bail Bonds and Liberty Bail Bonds. Also set for trial is Juanita Williams, 52, who managed his Immokalee office, but her trial likely will be reset.
Another employee, Zenova Abrahams, 40, is set for trial in November. They’re charged with permitting a felon to act as a bail bond agent and allowing someone to act as a bail bond agent without a license. Houston and Williams also are charged with soliciting business in jail by making deposits into inmates’ commissary accounts, which inmates use to purchase snacks, toiletries and other items.
The state Department of Financial Services had suspended their licenses pending trial, when assistant state attorneys Dave Scuderi and Jim Molenaar will play taped phone calls for jurors, show the deposits, and videotapes of a bond employee making the deposits.
Other inmates, including frequent felon Patrick Rosemellia, who said Houston paid him with hundreds of dollars’ worth of honeybuns for more than 13 years, already accepted plea bargains in return for their cooperation.
Houston’s new charge involves Arrie Denise Robinson, 47, a convict who had worked as a secretary at Express Bail Bonds since 1998. Robinson, arrested in June after an undercover sting, was convicted of welfare-food stamp fraud in 1986, which bars her from working in the bond business.
In September, Houston turned himself in on charges he employed Robinson, but spent only a night in jail before posting $2,500 bond. That won’t be part of his trial, which involves his 2007 arrest. His surrender Wednesday was because plea negotiations fell apart and the new charge violated terms of his release on bond.
Day told Baker he had hoped the new charge would help resolve the old case and that prosecutors said they wouldn’t revoke bond if they were resolved, but now they were far from settling, so it would have to go to trial next week.
But he argued that the state was wrong when it revoked bond. “Mr. Houston could not have committed a new offense on the 2007 case because he was suspended as a bond agent,” Day said.
Day and Baker discussed semantics of the law and hypothetical situations involving a fake lawyer doing a great job for a client unaware he wasn’t a lawyer, prompting Day to add, “You understand the statute. Not guilty. Dismissed.”
But Molenaar argued that state corporate filings for 2009 show Houston is a registered agent for his bond companies and owns the companies.
“You think that fits the statute?” Baker asked.
“I do,” Molenaar replied.
Baker then denied Day’s motion to set bond, but added, “You may have a good argument coming up.”
State records show Houston’s bond companies also include Liberty National Surety, Universal Bonding Inc., Bonding Unlimited Inc., and Freedom Bonding Surety. He owns several other companies, but records don’t show if they are bond firms.
This is the third time the state Department of Financial Services has suspended his license.
Department spokeswoman Nina Banister said a bond agent with a suspended license would fall under the statute Day argued. “The agent would still have a license and would be responsible for his actions under the license,” Banister said. “The agent’s authority to conduct new business — not his or her responsibility — is limited under a suspension.”
Houston and Williams are allowed to be in their offices, but cannot conduct business. Williams said licensed agents are handling the work.