Ronald Egana thought a bail bond would keep him free. Instead, he claims bounty hunters repeatedly kidnapped and extorted him for money he didnt know he owed to the bondsman.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says hes not alone.
Together theyre suing Blairs Bail Bonds of New Orleans and three other businesses for abusive and exploitive actions. Eganas lawsuit claims he was forced to pay $3,000 in hidden fees to win back his freedom. The SPLC said they believe there are others like Egana and they hope their lawsuit will shed light on a multibillion-dollar industry that preys on vulnerable inmates.
Egana was arrested for purchasing stolen goods last year, and together with his mother and a close friend took out a bail bond for $3,275. The contract allegedly left out important payment details including fees associated with an ankle monitor that Blairs Bail Bonds required Egana to wear.
After a few payments, Egana began to fall behind.
Within two months, Egana fell behind on his payments. Then one day, Egana said he was renovating the inside of a house when an armed bounty hunter walked up the porch while another circled to the back of the house. When Egana answered the door, he claims the bounty hunter handcuffed him, drove him to Blairs Bail Bonds, and demanded $800 or else he would go back to jail.
When Eganas mother arrived with the money, the lawsuit claims, an employee of Blairs Bail Bonds demanded an additional $1,500.
It seemed surreal to me, Egana told The Daily Beast. This was the first time I had experienced anything like this.
Bounty hunters came after Egana two more times, the lawsuit alleges. Once they grabbed him at court while he waited for a hearing. Another time, they tracked him down the day after Christmas and arrested him in front of his nieces and nephews. Both times the bounty hunters told him that he owed more money even after he finished paying off the amount listed in his contract, according to the lawsuit.
They had me in a state where I felt like I couldnt function, said Egana, adding that he lost two jobs because of the harassment.
Blairs Bail Bonds did not respond to requests for comment.
Egana said that he started to ask questions about where the payments were going. Bounty hunters took him one last time and turned him into jail claiming that the insurance company backing the bond did not want to deal with him anymore, according to the lawsuit. Bankers Surety Services is also named in the lawsuit. They declined to comment when asked about the case.
Bail bonds are used by people who cannot afford to pay their bail. A bail bonds agency covers the bail then charges a fee based off a certain percent of the bond. Clients usually pay the fee in installments. If they miss payments, the bondsman turns them over to jail and returns the fee. A report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that 97 percent of people in New Orleans district court used bail bonds (PDF).
This is the Wild West of the criminal justice system, said Sam Brooke, SPLCs deputy legal director.
Brooke said the largely unregulated industry mixed with for-profit interests allows for exploitation.
Louisiana sets a cap on how much bail bonds agencies can charge at 12 percent the price of bail, but there is little oversight to monitor bondsmen who take advantage of clients, said Brooke.
Then there is the financial incentive to keep the bail bonds system in place. For example, more than 30 percent of New Orleans district court budget comes from user generated fees like bail, according to the Vera Institute. That means the judge in charge of setting bail indirectly benefits from high bail costs thus feeding into the bail bonds system, said Jon Wool of the Vera Institute.
Theres certainly a potential conflict of interest, said Wool.
Wool said that bail bonds businesses wield political power. Blair Boutte, the owner of Blairs Bail Bonds, is the president and founder of a political consulting firm B3 Consulting that works with local elected officials. Disclosure records (PDF) show that B3 Consulting donated money to Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier who was sued for setting unreasonable bail bonds (PDF).
Boutte is not alone. An ACLU report in May found that the bail lobbyist group American Bail Coalition contributed almost $2 million to state level campaigns in 10 states from 2010 to 2016 (PDF). The money went toward blocking attempts to reduce reliance on bail in states like California and Maryland.
The bail bonds industry collects up to $2.4 billion a year nationwide, according to the report. Bonds surety companies are a driving force behind the numbers. These insurance corporations back individual bail bonds agencies. The ACLU found that only nine surety companies insure the vast majority of loans.
The bail companies portray themselves as small mom and pop operations, said Brooke.
People see bonds agencies as part of the community, somebody they can turn to during a crisis.
But thats not what happens at all, said Brooke.
A year later, Egana said that hes still suffering from his ordeal.
Im really digging myself out of a pit, said Egana. He lost work, valuable income and even his trust in the community. Who can I trust if I cant go to the people who are supposed to be helping?