OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Kiara Caldwell had no inkling of the years-long ordeal in store for her when she signed the forms to bail her close friend out of jail in 2018. She certainly didn’t expect to be harassed with daily phone calls, threatened with the loss of her job, or sued in state court.
But now she’s turning the tables on bail industry mainstay Bad Boys Bail Bonds with a class action challenging what she says are unenforceable credit agreements that leave bail cosigners on the hook for thousands of dollars.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Alameda Superior Court, is the first of its kind to target a bail company for violating California’s consumer protection laws.
“Bail companies have maintained that these consumer laws do not apply to them, but it's not true as it turns out,” Elisa Della-Piana, legal director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said in an interview Tuesday.
If someone cannot afford to secure their own release through bail, commercial bail bonds companies will pay on their behalf in exchange for a nonrefundable premium payment, usually 10% of the bail amount. Agencies also offer financing, sometimes called “credit bail,” where a cosigner must assume responsibility for the premium, which can be paid off in monthly installments.
Like Caldwell, friends and family members are often the ones cosigning these credit agreements. Caldwell’s lawsuit says Bad Boys provides no notice to cosigners that they are fully responsible for the repayment of the loan.
Caldwell was at home on June 21, 2018, when she got a call from a man who said he was from a bail bonds agency. He told her that she had a sister or family member in jail and that Caldwell could help get her out.
It turned out that a close friend, someone she considered a sister, had been arrested for shoplifting.
Caldwell was working as a security guard and attending classes at Chabot College in Oakland. She didn't have much extra cash lying around but she knew her friend needed her help.
“I was the only person who could help her out,” Caldwell said Tuesday.
So she headed down to Bad Boys Bail Bonds’ Oakland storefront, where she was met by the same guy she’s spoken with on the phone. Her friend’s bail was set at $5,000. The bail agent wanted $1,000.
Caldwell didn’t have ready access to a full grand, but she offered to pay $500. The agency wouldn't accept a debit card, so she went down the street to an ATM and withdrew the money in cash.
Caldwell said the whole process felt rushed and overbearing. They pushed paperwork at her, asked her to provide them with her employers’ information, her mother’s contact number, even the make and model of her car. It was her first time dealing with a bail bonds agency and she was more concerned about getting her friend out of jail, so she didn't ask questions.
“In being rushed you have this adrenaline, this extra energy pumping through you. I knew that she wanted to get out of jail and I felt I was the only person who could help her,” Caldwell said.
“It almost seemed more like they just wanted a sale. Nothing was explained and I didn’t ask any questions,” she said. “I was a bit younger at the time and I wasn’t thinking about the things that come with it. I'm just trying to get my sister out of jail. When you’ve never dealt with something and you're frantic in that moment, you tend not to ask questions. And they’re not worried about explaining anything to you.”