I'm watching a television murder mystery where the prosecutor asked for the suspect to post $1 billion bail. This leads me to question how possible it is for a city to use its court system to request extreme bail, knowing that at least a few may post it, while the trial may not be conducted for months, or sometimes more. This would serve as unbelievable float to cover a city's fiscal problems.

Possible maybe? Probable? Plausible?

3 Answers 3


Bail is actually more complicated than usually shown on TV. The Wikipedia page shows 9 different kinds (and a 10th "Any combination of the above"). Not all of them are relevant to all jurisdictions, but "One billion dollars bail" could really be several forms (my comments in italics after each one):

2) Unsecured bail. It is still a release without a deposit but it differs from [released on recognizance]in that the defendant must pay a fee upon breaching the terms of the bail. Since no money changes hands, this wouldn't help.

3) Percentage bail. The defendant deposits only a percentage of the bail's amount (usually 10%) with the court clerk. This would still be $100,000,000 on the billion, which would be a noticeable sum.

6) Property Bond The accused or a person acting on his behalf pledges real property having a value at least equal to the amount of the bail. If the principal fails to appear for trial the state can levy or institute foreclosure proceedings against the property to recover the bail. Used in rare cases and in certain jurisdictions. Often, the equity of the property must be twice the amount of the bail set. For a person who owns two billion dollars of property, this might be an option, but since it isn't liquid, the city wouldn't be able to use it until it was foreclosed and sold.

8) Cash Typically "cash-only," where the only form of bail that the Court will accept is cash. Court-ordered cash bonds require the total amount of bail to be posted in cash. The court holds this money until the case is concluded. This is almost certainly the form you're thinking of.

So, assuming that the cash or percentage options are what you're thinking of, is it feasible for the city to "float" this money? Not really.

Generally, the money is held by the court (not the city), so getting access to it for other purposes would be a problem. Additionally, the court has to be ready to return the money at any time - for example, if the charges are dropped or the accused dies, the bail will be returned. This has been researched a bit by the people in this thread, where the argument boils down to "Bail is to make sure you appear. If you no longer need to appear or you can't appear, then there's no need to hold it and it's returned."

This makes using it for any purpose very dangerous, because you might be suddenly expected to have that lump sum in hand - and if you're using it to "float" payments, you explicitly don't have that much around. Given the typical "at least 2 weeks" lead time government refunds can take, the city wouldn't necessarily need the cash in the bank right at that very moment, but if it suddenly had to re-raise that much money to repay you in a short period of time, it would be just as bad.

In short, it's effectively impossible, highly unlikely to even try and get around the impossibility, and it would be a really stupid idea for a city to try.

  • "the court has to be ready to return the money at any time" - are there actual laws/rules on the books that say it "has to"? (as opposed to common sense expectations)
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 14:35
  • @DVK - I assume you're asking if there's any laws saying the court has to be ready? Not that I'm aware, but here is the relevant Montana law, which just says When the conditions of bail have been performed ... the court shall return to the accused ... the deposit of any cash, stocks, or bonds. The implication (to me), is that this is an immediate thing, since it just says "When" with no provision for flex time.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 15:33
  • that sounds like it can be lawyered out of easily perecisely because there's no time mentioned ("... within X days")
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 15:38
  • @DVK - It's true. Here's a source for Idaho which says "2 weeks for processing". And the always-questionable eHow says 2-6 weeks. That's pretty typical for government paperwork, though.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 16:59
  • that timings should be added to answer IMHO
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 18:03

I'd say it's almost impossible.

1) Very few criminals have that amount of money for bail. Probably not even Al Capone (in the money of his time). Maybe a few Mexican or Colombian drug lords.

2) Bail is a legal instrument that is subject to severe restrictions. Basically, it can be used to insure that someone shows up in court if necessary. If the charges are dropped, or the person delivers himself/herself to the authorities, or the accused dies, the bail must be returned.

The way it "might" work is if you could arrest that drug lord, have him post $1 billion bail, and then look the other way while he escapes to his homeland, you could call it a $1 billion ransom. That's a bit far-fetched, to say the least.

  • Martha Stewart?
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 20:24
  • @DVK: "I'd say not really." The "market cap" of her company is about $141 million, nowhere close to $1 billion. seekingalpha.com/symbol/MSO?s=mso More to the point, I don't think she'd post $1 billion if she had it, against less than a year of jail time.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 20:25
  • The specific character on the show was/is an Internet billionaire - the terminology used was that a normal $2m bail was like a financial rounding error, he was so rich. He owned planes, boats, etc. so the prosecutor was sure he'd leave the jurisdiction from prosecution.
    – wbogacz
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 20:40
  • @wbogacz: Martha Stewart was a WOMAN who owned her own company (but sold part of it to the public). It's valued at $141 million today (perhaps twice that at the time). She might have been worth $150-$200 million at the time, but not $1 billion.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 20:43
  • @Tom - Thanks for the help. I was putting the facts in from the TV show as contrast to that woman, who couldn't have put up a $1b bail, even if ordered.
    – wbogacz
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 20:49

The prosecutor may request a bail amount, but it is set by the judge. There is a constitutional right in the U.S. for bail to be reasonable. While city court judges are wide discretion, they are duty bound to follow the case law regarding what is reasonable. Failure to do so in the magnitude suggested would likely result in a higher court promptly overturning the ruling prior to resolution of the merits of the case.

Also, demanding a bail higher than a defendant can afford to or is willing to post, simply increases a city's expenditures, rather than reducing them, by driving up jail costs.

Any funds posted as bond are held in trust and not accessible to the city unless bail is forfeited for failing to appear (often no money is even in the city's control and instead there is a promise of a fiscally sound surety to pay if there is a failure to appear that isn't promptly remedied by the surety). And, almost anyone capable of posting a very large bond also wouldn't fail to appear if they did post it.

The more likely scheme of a revenue driven city would be to impose modest bonds that defendants could afford to post, while letting it be known that the city would generally abandon cases where defendants fail to appear rather than prosecute them, effectively reducing the expense of incarceration for the city, while increasing fine revenue (from forfeited bonds) above what would otherwise have been imposed in fines and court costs, in cases against middle class and affluent defendants who don't want criminal records and don't want to risk conviction at trial. This would also not require the judge to act corruptly, and the prosecutor has unfettered discretion with absolute immunity from liability to choose this course of action.

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