The old West is alive and well in Montana, where the state's lack of regulations on bounty hunters means that "tyranny on the streets reigns free," a Missoula judge ruled last week.
Judge Robert “Dusty” Deschamps called on the Legislature to fix the problem as he dismissed charges against bounty hunter Vaness Baker, accused of breaking into a home where a fugitive was sleeping with his wife and child and handcuffing him at gunpoint.
Montana law is silent on the issue of bondsmen who subcontract work to unlicensed bounty hunters, and the most pertinent national law is 150 years old.
“Some scholars agree that, when bounty hunters are not regulated by the state or subject to civil liability, ‘tyranny on the streets reigns free,’” Deschamps wrote. “In order for a bounty hunter … to be held accountable for his actions, the Montana Legislature should re-evaluate the existing statutes.”
His order dismissed a charge of aggravated burglary against Vaness Baker, and said Baker’s defense attorney will be allowed to submit a jury instruction on the “reasonable force in arresting a fugitive” when Baker goes to trial — currently set for October — on the remaining charges of assault with a weapon.
Deschamps ruled that Baker was within his rights to break into the home in order to arrest the Lolo man because there are no specific Montana laws limiting bounty hunters, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings and other court decisions around the country provide precedents.
Deputy County Attorney Brittany Williams, the prosecutor in Baker’s case, said that after consulting with the Montana Attorney General’s office, they chose not to appeal, but will be continuing to trial on the remaining counts.
“We echo Judge Deschamps' sentiment that the issue of the power (of) unregulated bounty hunters requires a legislative solution, before someone gets hurt,” Williams said.
More than a year ago Baker and five other members of the Montana Civil Assistance Group, which offers “fugitive apprehension” among its services, were hired by a bail bondsman to apprehend Eugene Mitchell.
The bondsman had paid a $1,000 bond to get Mitchell out of jail. When he didn't show up for court, the bondsman was left on the hook for the money if he couldn't bring in his client. According to records filed in the case, Mitchell still owed the bondsman $115 dollars at the time.
For two days in April 2017, Baker and the bounty hunter team staked out Mitchell’s house, including surrounding a woman and her daughter who drove up to the home, holding them at gunpoint and demanding to know where Mitchell was, according to court records.
On April 23, 2017, at around 9:20 p.m., Mitchell, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter were asleep when they were awakened by a loud bang at the front door, according to charging documents filed against Baker. Records said Baker and his team, wearing body armor and carrying handguns and semiautomatic rifles, kicked in the door.
Baker’s attorney disputes that Mitchell was asleep, saying the team had seen Mitchell through a window and had repeatedly knocked on the door before kicking it in.
Five members of the team came into the bedroom where Mitchell, his wife and daughter were in bed. Mitchell reported that Baker pointed a rifle at his family, handcuffed him and took him to jail. Baker’s attorney contends in court filings that while Baker was armed, he did not point the rifle at anyone.
In August, Baker was charged with three counts of felony assault with a weapon, as well as felony aggravated burglary and two unlawful restraint misdemeanors. Four other members of the team were also charged.
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In February, Baker attempted to plead guilty after reaching a plea agreement, but Deschamps refused the accept the plea, saying he wanted more information about whether Baker’s status as a bounty hunter made a difference in whether his actions at Mitchell’s house were legal.
Baker’s attorney, Lisa Kauffman, filed a motion to throw out the burglary charge, and to get a specific jury instruction on the assault with a weapon counts, saying the jury should be informed about the potential for Baker to legally use “reasonable force” in apprehending Mitchell.
Prosecutors opposed Kauffman’s motion, arguing that Baker had no right to break into the home and that the burglary charges should go before a jury.
The primary contention comes down to the lack of any regulations in Montana concerning the power of bounty hunters. No laws in the state specifically establish their powers, and bounty hunters like Baker need no state license or training.
While Montana law allows a bondsman to arrest a client who doesn’t show up to court, it doesn’t mention whether a bondsman can subcontract the work to unlicensed bounty hunters. Baker’s attorney argued in a brief that because doing so was not expressly prohibited, and no other laws exist in the state to govern bounty hunters, the judge should rely on prior case law to determine if Baker’s actions were allowed.
Twice in recent years bills have been introduced in the Montana Legislature to create more specific authority and limitations on bounty hunters.
In 2013, then-state Sen. Elsie Arntzen, R-Billings, sponsored a bill that would have created a license for bounty hunters, including mandatory training and background checks, and put into statute the ability for bondsman to hire them for fugitive recovery.
In 2015, state Sen. Gordon Vance, R-Belgrade, introduced a bill that would have lengthened the time that bondsman have to bring back someone who skipped a court date. His bill also would have prohibited bondsmen from rearresting a client solely due to a contract dispute, for example just because the client still owed money.
Both bills died in committee.
Nationally, the best recognized case law on the matter is a nearly 150-year-old decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that found that bondsman are allowed to break and enter into a home to arrest a client.
Part of that 1872 decision says, in reference to the powers of bail bondsman or their agent recapturing a fugitive: “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.”
In his order, Deschamps acknowledged that the 1872 decision by the high court hadn’t been overruled by other opinions or expressly been overwritten by new laws.
“And although these opinions ‘may seem more like a memorable piece of United States history than good law, these basic principles still survive today in many jurisdictions’ including Montana,” the judge found, quoting in part a research paper from the Denver University Law Review.
In Mitchell's case, he'd agreed — as part of his bond contract — that the bondsman or his agents had the right to “enter your residence … without notice, at any time, for the purpose of locating, arresting and returning the defendant to custody.”
Deschamps wrote in his order that Mitchell expressly gave the bondsman and bounty hunters the right to enter his home to arrest him if he didn’t show up for court and that means that the “(R)equired element of trespass for the crime of aggravated burglary is not satisfied.”