Almost a year ago, a group of bounty hunters kicked in the door of a Lolo man’s home and found him asleep in bed with his wife and 4-year-old daughter.
The six-person team, wearing body armor and carrying semiautomatic rifles, pulled the man outside, handcuffed him, put him in their vehicle and drove away.
The four men and two women went to the house because the man owed $115 to a bondsman who had bailed him out of jail on misdemeanor charges of driving without insurance or a license.
Prosecutors charged five members of the team with felonies, but the bounty hunter’s leader — Vaness Baker — says he was well within his rights that night. Now a Missoula County judge is tasked with interpreting what is legal, and where the limits of a bounty hunter’s authority end.
Unlike some states, Montana has no regulations concerning bounty hunters. They are not licensed, trained, or overseen by any state agency, and there are no laws expressly allowing their existence or governing their limits. A bail bondsman is licensed as a surety agent, but no members of the bounty hunter team were licensed bondsman; they were simply hired by one to apprehend the Lolo man.
And whether they are allowed to break into his house to get him may depend on a nearly 150-year-old decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The situation started when the Lolo man, Eugene Mitchell, was arrested in March 2016 for the two misdemeanors. When he didn't show up for court, a Ravalli County judge issued a $1,000 arrest warrant, and Mitchell was picked up in Missoula County in January 2017. He then hired Michael Ratzburg of First Call Bail & Surety to pay for his $1,000 warrant.
Another warrant was issued for Mitchell's arrest in April 2017, and Ratzburg asked for Mitchell’s release on the warrant he paid to be revoked as well. The bondsman also wrote to the Montana Civil Assistance Group (MCAG) — an organization that calls its focus to “protect, preserve and uphold the Montana way of life” and offers “fugitive apprehension” among its services — asking them to find and arrest Mitchell for him.
According to a minute entry from MCAG records, Ratzburg told Baker, a founder of MCAG, that Mitchell owed the bondsman $115 against his bond.
Over the next two days, according to court documents, a team of bounty hunters from MCAG staked out Mitchell’s house, leading to two incidents that underlie the criminal charges.
Around 10:30 on April 21, a woman and her daughter drove up to the home to pick up money the girl was owed for babysitting. According to court records, Baker and his team used two cars to block the woman into the driveway. Then, wearing body armor and carrying guns, they surrounded her car and questioned her for more than 15 minutes about Mitchell’s whereabouts.
On April 23 at around 9:20 p.m., Mitchell, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter were asleep in bed when a loud bang at the front door woke them. Baker and his team, again clad in body armor and carrying handguns and rifles, had kicked in the door.
Five members of the team came into the bedroom, with a sixth remaining in the living room. Mitchell reported that Baker pointed his rifle at the family lying in bed. Mitchell was brought outside, handcuffed and taken away.
Mitchell was taken to the Ravalli County jail, which would not accept him because the MCAG team did not have any paperwork or warrant allowing them to take him into custody. Mitchell was booked after it was discovered he had a different warrant out for his arrest, but that warrant only allowed him to be arrested by a peace officer.
In August, Deputy Missoula County Attorney Brittany Williams charged five members of the bounty hunter team with felonies.
According to court records, members of the team told investigators they believed being involved with MCAG made them peace officers, with one saying she was unsure if MCAG was a private organization or a government agency.
Baker allegedly told detectives he wasn’t sure what authority he had to invade Mitchell’s home that night, and that he was following orders from the other leader of MCAG, who was not a part of the raid.
He was charged with three counts of felony assault with a weapon, as well as felony aggravated burglary and two misdemeanors for unlawful restraint.
In February, Baker attempted to plead guilty to a subset of his charges after coming to a plea agreement with Williams. But District Court Judge Robert “Dusty” Deschamps refused to accept the guilty pleas.
The judge told both sides he wanted more information about whether Baker’s status as a self-proclaimed bounty hunter made a difference in what actions he was allowed to take and what charges could be applied to him.
In response to the judge’s request, Baker’s attorney Lisa Kauffman filed a motion at the end of March to toss out his felony charge of aggravated burglary. She also sought jury instructions on the felony assault with a weapon counts saying Baker has a legal defense that he was allowed to use “reasonable force” in arresting Mitchell.
The general facts of the case do not appear to be in dispute. In her filing, Kauffman admits that Baker and the group kicked in the door, were armed, and found the man in his bedroom with his wife and child. Kauffman’s brief, however, said that while Baker had his gun out, he didn’t point it at anyone.
One of the main pieces of court precedent referenced by both Baker’s defense attorney and prosecutors is a 146-year-old decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that found, in part, that a bail bondsman has the power to arrest a client.
“They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and, if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose,” the high court held in 1872.
While Kauffman’s brief said Montana law allows a bail bondsman “or his agents” to arrest a person who forfeits bail by not showing up to court, the statute she referenced contains no language about a bondsman being allowed to let others perform this work.
“Montana law authorizes a surety, and not an agent of a surety, to apprehend a defendant,” Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings wrote in a response briefing. “(The statute) does not permit assignment of a surety’s powers, duties or responsibilities.”
Kauffman points to other court rulings from around the country that specifically refer to bounty hunters and allow bondsmen to assign their powers to others.
“In declining to enact laws restricting bounty hunters, Montana’s legislature has chosen to leave in place the (court precedent) rights of bounty hunters to arrest fugitives by breaking and entering into their homes and using reasonable force,” she wrote.
Kauffman also likened Baker’s apprehension of Mitchell to that of a citizen’s arrest, which under Montana law is allowed so long as the citizen uses “reasonable force.”
She also indicates that Baker, as a bounty hunter, should be viewed in the same light a law enforcement officer allowed to conduct an arrest would be. Kauffman referenced in her filing the Montana statute governing the use of force by police, and court precedent from other states that compares the powers of bounty hunters to those of cops.
“The jury instruction should outline (court precedent) regarding a bondsman’s right to use reasonable force and explain that a bondsman has the right to use reasonable force to the same extent a Montana police officer may use reasonable force in making an arrest,” Kauffman wrote.
At no point in her brief did Kauffman say that Baker is a licensed bondsman.
In his reply filing, Jennings said Baker is simply a normal public citizen with no special privileges just because he chooses to call himself a bounty hunter.
“The only question before the court is whether the existence of a notice of bond forfeiture and a bail bond agreement authorized Baker and the MCAG to break into a home shared by multiple individuals, including a child, and point assault rifles at a family lying in bed,” he wrote.
“There is simply no basis in law for an affirmative defense of reasonableness of pointing an assault weapon at a wife and child of a person who is in a civil contract dispute with his bail bondsman.”
The agreement Mitchell signed with Ratzburg — the bondsman who hired Baker and his team — said the bondsman would have the right to “apprehend arrest and surrender” Mitchell to law enforcement “at any time.”
Jennings wrote that the notice from the judge forfeiting the bond for failing to appear was never sent to Mitchell, only Ratzburg, despite a state law requiring both parties be notified.
He also said the bail bond agreement is unenforceable because it “permitted the surety to hire a group of unlicensed private citizens to break into Mitchell’s house and point assault rifles at him, his wife and four-year-old child lying in bed.”
Prosecutors wrote that the incident traumatized Mitchell’s daughter, who now hides every time someone knocks on the door.
Kauffman will have another court briefing in the matter due this week, setting up a hearing in court on the matter in early May.
In addition to Baker, four co-defendants were also charged: Keegan Crick, Skylar Reese-Bamford, Larry Wallace and Maria Miller.
In March, Crick’s attorney requested to also be allowed to file briefs about the potential legal rights of bounty hunters. Miller — who originally was charged with a felony — eventually pleaded guilty to amended charges of a misdemeanor for criminal trespass and three counts of unlawful restraint in March. She was sentenced to two years in jail, all of which was suspended, and must pay $300 in restitution.
Charges against Wallace and Reese-Bamford were filed along with the other cases in August, but authorities have not been able to locate the pair. A $1,000 arrest warrant is active for Wallace, and a $5,000 warrant is active for Reese-Bamford.