Like a lot of Houston motorists, Daphne A. Rambo found out the hard way that her vehicle license tags and inspection sticker had expired in January. A police officer pulled her over while she was driving from work to her Oak Forest home. The cop wrote her two tickets but told her they were routine matters -- she'd only have to show up in court with proof that she'd renewed the license and sticker and the citations would be dismissed.
Not long before her February 20 court date, she found out the process could be even more convenient. In a call to Houston municipal court, Rambo was instructed to simply send in copies of her documentation of a new license and inspection sticker, along with a $20 check to cover the $10 dismissal fee for both of the tickets. A court worker told her to just make sure the letter was postmarked prior to the court date, so she mailed the materials on February 19.
Rambo, a pawn shop owner, had already put the matter out of her mind nine days later, when she arrived home to find a bonanza of mail waiting for her. Most of it had the ominous appearance of official government correspondence:
"You have 3 warrants for your arrest," one letter warned her in large type. "You are subject to arrest at any time at your home or job." Another was labeled with the bold title "ARREST WARRANT NOTICE."
"I was scared," Rambo says. Closer inspection of the material revealed that it had come from two law firms and two bonding agencies offering to help her -- for a price, of course -- to avoid jail.
In reality, Rambo had little reason to be frightened. While police technically can take people in for unpaid traffic tickets, officers rarely come looking in cases of such minor offenses. And in Rambo's case, there wasn't even a warrant out for her arrest.
That truth did little to diminish her fear at the time, however. Rambo even thought of locking herself in her house over the weekend, until she could call the court to straighten out the mess on Monday.
Rambo had just been introduced to one of the newer marketing methods of lawyers and bonding agencies. They pay the city to provide them with your name, address and alleged offense. They want your business, and will jam your mailbox -- or even alarm you -- to get it.
She could have called 3 Amigos Bonding, which would "remove these warrants today for $60," the same rate offered by Goldfinger bail bonds. The law firms of Sullo & Sullo or Benavides & Kelly also notified her they were willing to help her avoid jail and fight the charges -- for a fee.
Barbara Sudhoff, director and chief clerk of the city's municipal courts, says they issue 500 warrants a day, and the information on them is, essentially, for sale. The companies that sent Rambo the ominous letters got their information through open records requests. Sudhoff's office charges them for the time and material needed to process each request, which amounts to less than $100 under the monthly fee plan. They get about 15 open records requests a day for information on warrants. "The Open Records Act requires that I provide any information they request unless it fits the attorney general's exception rules," Sudhoff explains. She says the city doesn't release driver's license numbers or social security numbers, but that "name, address, disposition of the case, the type of offense are all subject to open records."
Some companies have ongoing requests, which means they receive every name on every warrant every day. Steven Villarreal, information and technology specialist for 3 Amigos, says that each business day, the firm sends out about 500 letters just like the one Rambo received.
Sudhoff is critical of that mailout. She thinks the letter might be interpreted as a city document. "I don't appreciate someone misleading the public. When they title a document 'City of Houston Municipal Courts,' they have no right to do that." The 3 Amigos letterhead has that title in English and Spanish. Above that -- in small English type only -- are the words "According to the."
Below the letterhead is the bilingual warning about being arrested at home or work, then the $60 warrant-removal offer. The 3 Amigos logo is two-thirds down the page. Nowhere is it mentioned that the mailout is an advertisement.
Nor does the "ARREST WARRANT NOTICE" from Goldfinger Bonding Company disclose that it is an ad. The first line of text, in bold, begins "The City of Houston " Goldfinger isn't mentioned until the second paragraph, midway down the page.
Goldfinger manager David Hinze was asked about the propriety -- even legality -- of that firm's letters. "I don't feel I should be answering these questions," he said. Hinze then added that representatives from Bankers Insurance Co., a Florida company that owns Goldfinger, would contact the Houston Press with a response. They did not.
Villarreal, who designed the mailouts for the 3 Amigos company, which is owned by his mother, agreed with Rambo's assertion that the ad should include the municipal court's 24-hour hot line, so citizens can immediately get official verification of warrants.
Greg Sullo, of Sullo & Sullo, said that in light of Rambo's experience, his firm would add the hot line number to its letters. "I think it's a great idea," he said. Attorney Kelly Benavides said her firm also would publish the number.
Rambo says that after she saw the letters about her arrest warrant, she spent hours that night frantically telephoning. She finally reached a friend who told her to call the municipal court hot line at 713-247-5100. As it turned out, city records showed it had not received her check for the $20 dismissal fee until shortly after the deadline, so there had been four days when she technically was under an arrest warrant. But that had been cleared up by the time the letters began arriving at her home.
When she phoned the hot line, she found out she didn't need to spend the weekend imprisoned in her home after all.
Sudhoff, however, is not ready to let the matter go. At her request, Assistant City Attorney Lisa Hargrove is investigating the mailouts from the two bonding companies. "At first blush it looks like it could be from the city," Hargrove says. "That's our concern, and they're not licensed to use our name."
Hargrove says the mailouts from the two law firms appear to be in compliance because they use their own letterhead, label the documents as advertisements and have been approved by the State Bar of Texas.
The postal blitz has also led to some concerns from veteran traffic court lawyers who do not solicit clients through the mail. "The marketing techniques have become very aggressive," says attorney Paul Kubosh, who calls the mailouts misleading. "An educated person could look at it, and it's pretty scary."
Villarreal thinks Rambo's reaction to his company's solicitation was "a little melodramatic" but offered to write her a letter of apology. He said 3 Amigos will change the form letters to put the company logo on top and "tone down the language some." "We don't want to piss anyone off," he says. "If we're not in compliance, 3 Amigos will move immediately to change it."
But there is confusion about what compliance actually entails. Bonding agencies are regulated by the Harris County Bail Bonding Board. Sheriff's Deputy Charles Shepherd, who investigates bonding complaints for the board, said a court order against the board's prohibition of telemarketing by bail bondsmen has led to some ambiguity. "We're in a little bit of a land-lock on advertising because of an appeal on our regulations," he says, "but they should have their license number on all advertisements."
Villarreal says the absence of the bonding license number on 3 Amigo's ads will be corrected immediately. He says 3 Amigos has been sending out the same document for five years with few complaints.
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Villarreal says their mailout was approved by a former municipal court official, now deceased, when 3 Amigos submitted its original request.
Sudhoff, who has been chief clerk for a year, says she can't verify that because administrative documents are kept for only four years. But, she says, "I can't imagine that someone in a management position would approve this."
"She must not have very much imagination" was Villarreal's retort.
Sudhoff believes that attorneys and bonding agencies can provide a service by quickly notifying citizens of warrants, but that most people with traffic-related warrants would be better off simply paying their late tickets than applying bond money toward the same end. "We are more than happy to assist them to resolve their cases," Sudhoff says. "The advertisements don't tell you that."