A signature bond is something of a “get out of jail free” card – at least temporarily, until the accused can have a fair trial and is either acquitted or sentenced. Also referred to as a “recognizance” or “ROR” bond, a signature bond is offered in lieu of a defendant posting a traditional bond or monetary bail. No money actually changes hands, assuming that the defendant follows all the rules imposed by the court and shows up for trial.
What Is a Signature Bond?
A signature bond is more or less what it sounds like: The defendant’s signature acts as his bail or bond. He doesn't have to pay the court or seek the assistance of a bail bond company to avoid going to jail or prison.
He signs a document at the conclusion of the bail hearing, promising that he'll return to court for trial. A financial penalty is assigned in the event that he doesn't. Then the defendant would have to pay up in the amount cited in the signature bond and would most likely be subject to immediate arrest for not appearing.
The defendant isn’t on the hook indefinitely for the promised money, however. Signature bonds automatically expire when the defendant does whatever he has promised to do and he appears in court again at the appointed time.
What’s the Difference Between Bail and Bond?
A signature bond shouldn’t be confused with a bail bond or property bond, in which a bit of cash or property is typically pledged to a bail bond company as collateral. The company then pays the entire bail amount for the defendant’s release.
For example, the defendant’s parents might assign their home to the company and pay a small percentage of the bail amount. The company would then post the defendant’s bail with the court – but not the entire amount. The company is only responsible for paying the entire bail balance should the defendant not appear in court, but it also has the right to take ownership of the property as repayment. Courts consider this sufficient motivation for the defendant to appear.
Bail, on the other hand, is money paid directly to the court in exchange for release, and it’s not returned if the defendant doesn’t show up for trial. Some state courts accept pledged property rather than cash bail, so defendants can avoid enlisting the services of a bail bond company, but that technically makes this option a bond, not bail.
Read More: What Is a Split Bail Bond?
Who Qualifies for a Signature Bond?
Signature bonds are typically reserved as an option for misdemeanor crimes and minor felonies. Granting one is left to the discretion of the judge. A judge can release a defendant on her own recognizance, or it has the option of ordering cash bail in more serious cases, requiring a traditional bond if the defendant doesn’t personally have and can't gain access to the available funds.
Judges typically award this option to defendants with no prior criminal history and who have ties to the community. These defendants aren’t considered a danger to the community or likely to disappear to parts unknown to avoid trial. Some state courts use mathematical algorithms to weigh these factors, however, assigning defendants a score that decides whether they qualify for a signature bond.
Other conditions can be and often are imposed as well, in addition to appearing in court at the prescribed time. Defendants might be:
- Ordered to maintain contact with a probation officer.
- Ordered not to visit or have contact with certain people, places or locations.
- Ordered not to use drugs or alcohol.
Bail Bonds Without a “Cosigner”
A key word in all this is “own” recognizance. It’s typically sufficient for a defendant to give his word that he’ll abide by the rules of the court and appear for trial, signing a statement to the effect that he'll owe a financial penalty if he doesn't. Someone else can agree to pay the financial penalty should the defendant not appear in some states, however.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.