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Miss. court hears appeal in bail bondsmen case

The Tunica County sheriff’s decision to bar names from an approved list of bail bondsmen in no way affected their licenses or rights to do business elsewhere, lawyers for the county argued Tuesday before the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The county is appealing a judge’s order in 2008 that Sheriff K.C. Hamp illegally suspended James Hampton Gardner, the owner of Hampton Company National Security LLC, and his employee, James Dean, from writing bail bonds in Tunica County.

According to the court record, Hamp said he suspended the men’s bond-writing privileges because they failed to produce criminal defendants for court appearances. The bondsmen were later returned to the list.

The bondsmen, among other things, argued they were licensed by the state and that license could not be suspended by a local official.

Circuit Judge Charles Webster had ruled that there was no authority in Mississippi law to support Hamp’s action.

John S. Hill of Tupelo, the attorney for the county, said it was the duty of the sheriff to keep the peace and that duty included the authority to determine who writes bonds in Tunica County.

“It is a catchall statute. Catchall statutes are the backbone under which most of our entities operate,” Hill said.

William B. Ryan of Memphis, representing the bondsmen, said Hamp’s authority over Gardner’s company was limited by state law. He said Gardner’s firm is backed by an insurance company and licensed through the Mississippi Department of Insurance.

Ryan said that meant for Hamp to prevent Gardner from writing bonds, the sheriff had to file a complaint with the insurance department and follow the law requiring a hearing and appeals.

The sheriff “does not have any statutory power to evade this detailed process,” Ryan said.

“This sheriff unitarily denied the writing of bonds by this company. He has been prosecutor, judge and jury. You may not like what the law is, but you’ve got to follow the law,” Ryan said.

Hill said the sheriff acted only because the bondsmen were not bringing criminal defendants to court on time. That, he said, did not affect the bondsmen’s license or their right to do business except in Tunica County until the problem was resolved.