When Bail Feels Less Like Freedom, More Like Extortion

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But bondsmen have extraordinary powers that most lenders do not. They are supposed to return their clients to jail if they skip court or do something illegal. But some states give them broad latitude to arrest their clients for any reason — or none at all. A credit card company cannot jail someone for missing a payment. A bondsman, in many instances, can.

Using that leverage, bond agents can charge steep fees, some of which are illegal, with impunity, according to interviews and a review of court records and complaint data. They can also go far beyond the demands of other creditors by requiring their clients to check in regularly, keep a curfew, allow searches of their car or home at any time, and open their medical, Social Security and phone records to inspection.

They keep a close eye on their clients, but in many places, no one is keeping a close eye on them.

“It’s a consumer protection issue,” said Judge Lee V. Coffee, a criminal court judge in Memphis. Before recent changes to the rules there, he said, defendants frequently complained of shakedowns in which bondsmen demanded extra payments. “They’re living under a constant daily threat that ‘if you don’t bring more money, we’re going to put you in jail.’” The pressure, the judge said, “would actually encourage people to go out and commit more crimes.”

Unlike payday lenders, the bail bond industry deals with potential criminals whose very involvement with the law raises questions about their trustworthiness. But in the United States criminal justice system, the Supreme Court has affirmed, liberty before trial is supposed to be the norm, not the exception — the system is intended to allow defendants to stay out of jail.

Some bail bond practices have drawn the ire of judges who complain that payment plans are too lenient on people accused of serious crimes, allowing them to get out for just a few hundred dollars or even no money down. Those judges say it should be more difficult for the accused to walk free.

Other judges see some bondsmen as trampling the rights of defendants. One judge in Lafayette, La., Jules Edwards III, held in contempt two bondsmen who were brothers for intercepting a defendant on his way to court and sending him, instead, to jail.

The judge said the commercial bail industry had put its financial interests above justice and public safety. “If he’s not in compliance with the contract, sue him. How do you get to snatch his body and hold him hostage?” Judge Edwards said in a phone interview.

He added that defendants do not have to go with their bondsmen unless there is a warrant out for their arrest, but many of them do not know that. “What they’re doing is intimidating and coercing and lying,” he said. The brothers declined to comment.

In both Mr. Egana’s case and this one, the bondsmen would not have been on the hook for the defendants’ failure to appear, because they diverted the defendants from court dates for unrelated cases, not the ones for which they had bailed them out.

The bond agency, Blair’s Bail Bonds, stopped Mr. Egana, who had prior felony convictions, from going to court on charges of fleeing an officer, but had bailed him out in June 2016 after he was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana, a firearm and stolen property.

Had Mr. Egana been wealthier, he might have been able to post his full bail of $26,000, then gotten it back when he returned for court. But like most defendants, Mr. Egana had to turn to a commercial bail bond agent that charges a nonrefundable fee for the service of guaranteeing the bond.

Not only could Mr. Egana not afford the full bail, he could not afford the fee, $3,275. He arranged to pay it in installments. After his release, he said, Blair’s informed him that on top of the premium, he would have to pay $10 a day for an ankle monitor, though the judge had not ordered one. Guilty or innocent, Mr. Egana would never see any of that money again. Blair’s has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.

Some customers feel they have no choice but to pay bond agents’ fees — no matter how outrageous they seem. When a home health care aide wanted to bail her son out of Rikers Island in New York City, she was charged $1,000 to have a courier walk her money a few blocks to the courthouse.

A defendant in a serious domestic violence case in Santa Clara, Calif., suffering from a dangerous heart condition, had to have his ankle monitor removed each time he went to the hospital, and was forced to pay $300 to have it put back on afterward.

A woman in Des Moines woke one morning to find that her 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix had been repossessed during the night. Had she put up her car as collateral in a typical loan, she would have been notified that she had fallen behind and given 20 days to pay.

But instead, the car was collateral for a bail bond for her child’s father. She owed $700 to the bail agents. They not only took the car, but turned the father over to the jail. Ultimately the misdemeanor assault charges against him were dismissed.

The bond agents in the Lafayette, New York, Santa Clara and Des Moines cases declined to comment. But Jeffrey J. Clayton, the executive director of the American Bail Coalition, an industry group, said that credit bonds, as the payment plans are called, should be more tightly regulated and require at least a minimum down payment. However, he said, any rules should preserve the benefit to the customer, namely, “If you have the ability to pay it, just not right now, you can get out right now.”

Bond companies fall into a sort of regulatory gulf between criminal courts and state insurance departments, which are supposed to regulate them but seldom impose sanctions. With rare exception, defense lawyers and prosecutors are too busy with their caseloads to keep bond companies in line. Further complicating things, it is often unclear whether consumer protection laws apply, and insurance departments say they lack the resources to investigate complaints.

In the case of Mr. Egana, who worked as a carpenter, it did not take long for him to fall behind on his payments. But he thought that since he was routinely showing up to court, he would be fine.

He was wrong. The bond company detained him several more times, according to court records. At one point, two men with guns and bulletproof vests came to the home where he was working as a contractor and forced him into a car. Each time, they demanded that his mother pay more money.

Jeffrey Orey, a spokesman for Blair’s Bail Bonds, while denying any wrongdoing, declined to comment on the specifics of Mr. Egana’s lawsuit. He said the company had never charged interest or assessed penalties for late payment. The lawsuit, brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Mr. Egana and alleging violation of consumer lending laws, says Mr. Egana’s mother paid at least $5,450 — or almost two times the original premium — to keep her son out of jail. Some of her money, the lawsuit says, was applied to older debts that Mr. Egana still owed.

“It was kidnapping,” Mr. Egana said. “They saw the love that my mom has for me, and they used that to their advantage.”

In May, Blair’s decided it no longer wanted Mr. Egana as a customer and handed him over to the jail.

Siphoning Millions From Poor

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