01:06, May 03 56 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-03 01:06:04
ACLU challenges bail bonds system after bounty hunters charged with assault

Eugene Mitchell and his wife, Shayleen, were sleeping comfortably in their bed at home in Lolo, Montana, when they were startled awake by the sound of their front door being busted down.

“Two seconds later they were in our bedroom, all wearing tactical gear, camouflage, assault rifles,” Mitchell said, recalling five men in total.

They had “badges”– but they weren’t the police, they hadn’t sworn an oath of public office and they weren’t certified or registered in any way.

The men who burst in that night were bounty hunters – at least that’s what they called themselves – and they had been dispatched to capture Mitchell after a missed court date for driving on a suspended license – a misdemeanor.

“It’s just completely wrong – no knocking, no nothing – just to come in and do what they did,” Mitchell told the Guardian. The couple’s four-year-old daughter, Bristol, is still in therapy dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from the raid. Shayleen now dreads being home alone, and their front door still isn’t fixed.

Now, the April 2017 incident is at the center of a lawsuit that advocates hope may have sweeping implications for the bail bonds industry – which in many parts of the US, including Montana, endures as an unregulated and archaic throwback to a bygone era of frontier justice.

“If we’re successful, I think that could have a huge effect nationwide on the legality of the business,” said Andrea Woods, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Criminal Law Reform Project, which is bringing the suit. “It’s our view that commercial, private profiteers in this system are unnecessary, and we believe in their outright abolition.”

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Commercial bail bonds systems exist in only two places in the world: the Philippines and in the majority of the US. Several cities and states, including New Jersey and California, have moved to virtually eliminate its use in recent years.

In most of the US, however, the business works like this: a person is arrested for a crime, and arraigned by a judge who sets an amount of “money bail” as a placeholder until the accused shows up for trial, at which point, it is refunded in full.

But since most defendants can’t afford their bail outright (the average bail for a felony is nearly $12,000) they instead have their bail paid by a bondsman agency – a private business that promises a defendant’s appearance in court, and agrees to pay the full bail amount if they don’t show up.

For the service, bondsmen charge a non-refundable premium – typically 10% of the bail amount. In Mitchell’s case, he paid $228 on a bail of $1,670. Most bondsmen employ so-called “bounty hunters” to go after “fugitive” defendants who miss court dates, as Mitchell inadvertently did, a term that Woods rejects.

“The industry refers to these people with the word fugitive when we’re talking about someone who had just been working out of town and missed court four days prior,” said Woods. “It’s hard to grasp the absurdity of that in light of how rare it is for people to truly skip out on prosecution.”

In some places, like Montana, there is little to no regulation on who can call themselves a bounty hunter, or what methods to use in the business of fugitive recovery. Mitchell’s case was an extreme example of how absurd the situation can get when people with no training or expertise are contracted to do such work. The bounty hunters hired by bondsmen to track Mitchell down admitted they “did not know on what authority they seized, arrested and surrendered Mr Mitchell”, according to court filings. They also had none of the correct paperwork in hand when they remanded Mitchell to jail – which turned out to be the wrong jail.

In the same documents one of the bounty hunters, Larry Wallace, stated that he liked “basically doing the type of work that law enforcement does, because that’s what we do, we carry guns, we carry weapons … even though we don’t have police training”.

Mitchell said as the bondsmen took him to jail after seizing him from his home, they boasted about their vast collections of guns, and crimes they had committed in other states. “They are backwoods hillbillies that are carrying guns and breaking into people’s houses,” Mitchell said.

Local prosecutors agreed, at least with the second part of Mitchell’s assessment, charging the bounty hunters with assault, burglary and weapons charges. Five of the six individuals involved have pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

That should help the ACLU’s civil suit against the bounty hunters themselves, but the suit also targets the bondsman who hired the bounty hunters, and the insurance companies who underwrite the bonds, earning $1.4 to $2.4bn each year on bail bonds.

Mitchell is suing all those parties on allegations of assault, trespassing, false imprisonment, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, as well as violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Even if he wins, life is forever changed for Mitchell’s family, all over a pair of driving-related misdemeanors. “Two years later, my daughter still runs and hides whenever anyone knocks at the door. My wife is nervous to be home alone. We’re all still waiting for things to feel normal again.”

The Montana Civil Assistance Group, to which the bounty hunters in Mitchell’s case belonged, did not respond to a request for comment.

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