Montana ACLU takes on bounty hunters in Missoula bail-bond lawsuit

Eugene Mitchell, Shayleen Meuchell and their 4-year-old daughter. (Photo via ACLU of Montana)

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against private companies that use armed bounty hunters to capture people who jump bail, claiming they did not have authority to drag a Montana man who missed a court hearing out of bed at gunpoint.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana and the Terrell Marshall Law Group filed the complaint in Missoula federal court on behalf of a couple whose home was broken into by bounty hunters wearing bullet-proof vests and wielding semi-automatic rifles.

The plaintiffs are Eugene Mitchell and his wife, Shayleen Meuchell, a couple from Lolo.

The lawsuit names as defendants First Call Bail and Surety Inc., Allegheny Casualty Company, International Fidelity Insurance Company, Montana Civil Assistance Group, Michael Ratzburg, Van Ness Baker Jr. and Jason Haack.

Mitchell and his wife were in bed in April 2017 when bounty hunters from the Montana Civil Assistance Group allegedly broke down the front door of their home and pointed guns at the couple and their 4-year-old daughter.

The bounty hunters seized Mitchell and took him to the nearby Ravalli County Detention Center, but law-enforcement officials there refused to accept Mitchell into the jail because the bounty hunters did not have power to arrest him, according to the complaint.

Mitchell was jailed, however, on a previous outstanding warrant from the Montana Highway Patrol.

He says he had been jailed three months earlier on misdemeanor offenses when he hired First Call Bail and Surety to bail him out of jail and allow him to get back to his job as a concrete worker.

Mitchell and his wife paid the bond deposit of $228 but when he missed a court appearance, the armed bounty hunters from Montana Civil Assistance Group were called in, the complaint states.

The couple asserts claims for assault, trespassing, false imprisonment, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, as well as several charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and the Montana Consumer Protection Act.

“This experience turned my life upside down,” Mitchell said in a statement. “I didn’t feel like we had another option at the time. We couldn’t afford the bond and I needed to be released to work and support my family. This incident was traumatizing. My wife is nervous to be home alone. We’re all still waiting for things to feel normal again.”

Montana is among 17 states that allow bounty hunters to track down bail jumpers.

Wednesday’s lawsuit is the first the ACLU has filed against the private, for-profit bail industry in America.

“These bondsman and bounty hunters took the law into their own hands, inducing terror and trauma on this family,” Alex Rate, legal director of the ACLU Montana, said in a statement. “To break into someone’s house and hold him and his family at gunpoint is an absurd and dangerous overreaction for a missed court date related to a traffic violation. When these bounty hunters brought Mr. Mitchell into jail, they didn’t even have a proper warrant for his arrest. This type of vigilantism is disturbing and deeply damaging.”

The lawsuit alleges the Montana Civil Assistance Group recommends that its members carry AR-15 type rifles to be the “last line of defense against any threat.”

Rate said Mitchell’s case is part of a larger problem in America with the “bail bond economy.” He said about 440,000 people are in jail in America because they can’t afford bail, and the national median cost for bail in a felony arrest is $11,700.

In the bail business, companies like First Call Bail and Surety help people get out of jail on bail by posting a bail bond. The people trying to get out of jail pay a fee for the service and promise to show up for their hearing dates.

If the clients don’t show up for court, the court can issue a bond revocation, leaving the bond company liable for the entire bail amount. The companies often have 90 days to get their client back to court, or they risk paying the entire bond amount themselves.

Meanwhile, insurance companies such as the ones listed as defendants in the case profit by extending credit to the individual bail companies and collecting premiums. If the client defaults on his bond, the bond company — not the insurance company — is liable for the entire bond amount. This makes the bail-bond insurance side of the business very lucrative.

According to the complaint, there are about 25,000 bail bond agents in America, with nine insurance companies underwriting their businesses.

The lawsuit claims these nine insurance companies secure roughly $14 billion in bail bonds annually and earn an estimated $1.4 to $2.4 billion in profits each year.

In 2018, defendant Allegheny Casualty Company underwrote $825 million in bail bonds across the country, the lawsuit says, and defendant International Fidelity underwrote $894 million in bail bonds.

“It’s easy to look at the bounty hunters who charged into Mr. Mitchell’s home as the villains of the story,” Andrea Woods, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said. “But the insurance companies are making billion dollar profits off this predatory behavior. They’re the ones who fund the lobbyists to enact laws that enable this to continue unfettered. They must be held accountable.”

An email to defendant Ratzburg, owner of lead defendant First Call Bail and Surety, was not returned Wednesday.