The case of a Bitterroot bounty hunter who terrorized a family in pursuit of a man who missed a court hearing has now splayed into a civil lawsuit that seeks to hold the bail bondsman and its insurance companies accountable for what civil rights groups are calling "predatory behavior."
The ACLU of Montana on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against First Call Bail and Surety Inc. The company hired a bounty hunter group whose armed members aggressively entered the home of Eugene Mitchell, his wife and their then-4-year-old daughter and held them at gunpoint in the middle of the night in April 2017 while taking Mitchell into custody. The armed group staked out the home for several days, swarming one car in the driveway that wasn't even carrying Mitchell.
"To break into someone's house and hold him and his family at gunpoint is an absurd and dangerous reaction for a missed court date related to a traffic violation," ACLU Montana's legal director Alex Rate said in a statement, adding that the bounty hunters didn't even have a proper warrant. "This type of vigilantism is disturbing and deeply damaging."
Michael Ratzburg, owner at First Call Bail and Surety and a named defendant, declined to comment on the lawsuit when reached by phone on Wednesday.
The 70-page lawsuit, filed on behalf of that family, also names the bond company's insurance companies, Allegheny Casualty Company and International Fidelity Insurance Company.
The ACLU and ACLU of Montana said in a statement released Wednesday that the 2017 incident at Mitchell's home is an example of "a for-profit bail industry that preys on the most vulnerable people."
The release states that approximately 440,000 people, about 70 percent of those incarcerated, are behind bars before they are convicted because they can't afford to pay bail. It cites the Federal Reserve in stating that nearly half of Americans couldn't pay an unexpected $400 expense, while the national median for bail amounts set after felony arrests is $11,700.
"It's easy to look at the bounty hunters who charged into Mr. Mitchell's home as the villains of the story," said Andrea Woods, staff attorney at the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform project. "But the insurance companies are making billion-dollar profits off this predatory behavior. They're the ones who fund lobbyists to enact laws that enable this to continue unfettered."
California officials last year passed a proposal to eliminate payment of money as a condition of release, a measure that was supposed to go into effect later this year. But the Los Angeles Times reports a coalition of bail industry associations successfully gathered enough signatures to put the measure to a ballot vote in 2020.
The ACLU argues that insurers have driven up the number of felony cases requiring defendants pay high amounts for release ahead of trial. Insurers have worked with lobbying groups like the American Bail Coalition and American Legislative Exchange Council in passing 12 different bills to "insulate and expand for-profit bail's role."
The bounty hunter charged in the case, Van Ness Baker, who was given a three-year deferred sentence in February for unlawful restraint, is also named as a defendant. Baker pleaded guilty to the charge in November.
The incident, which Mitchell and his family called "traumatizing" in the ACLU's statement, sparked calls from a Missoula judge for change to the state's complete absence of oversight of bounty hunters, which permits that "tyranny on the streets reigns free," Judge Robert "Dusty" Deschamps said.
The state Legislature also took a crack at eliminating carte blanche for bounty hunters, but the bill's sponsor, Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, tabled it in order to spend more time parsing out the details. Sands vowed to return with legislation next session.
One measure was taken immediately after the botched arrest: when Baker and the armed, body-armor-clad bounty hunter group arrived with Mitchell at the Ravalli County jail they were turned away. The sheriff also told the group their arrests would no longer be accepted in Ravalli County, according to court documents.
The civil claims in Wednesday's filing include assault, trespassing, false imprisonment, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and violation of the Montana Consumer Protection Act.