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Woman Takes on ‘Inappropriate and Unlawful’ Bail Bond Contracts

Tired of what she says are harassing phone calls over a contract she says is unenforceable, a San Francisco Bay Area woman has hit a bail industry leader with a first-of-its-kind consumer class action.

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.”

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Della-Piana said such tactics are typical.

“This is a moment where people are at their most vulnerable. Their loved one’s freedom is at stake. Part of the tactic is to say as little as possible, to get people to sign as quickly as possible and make people feel like they're getting a great deal,” she said. “A lot of people think all they will be expected to pay is the amount they say ‘we'll need today.’ They scrape together $200 or $500 and that's all it's going to take as long as their loved one shows up in court. The cosigners don't realize they are responsible for the entirety of the contract or how big it is.”

Caldwell believed her sister would be responsible for paying off the remaining $500. But the credit agreement she signed set a balance of $4,500, with payments of $450 due every month over ten to 18 months. The calls started in July. It wasn’t too bad at first. They just wanted to know where their money was. But Caldwell didn’t have it, and her friend wasn’t paying either.

Then they got aggressive. The calls got more frequent and from unknown numbers. Sometimes it was a man, sometimes a woman. “If I’m on five they were on 10,” Caldwell said. They said, “We can tell your employer and you could lose your job because you’re not making your payments.” Caldwell suspected that was an illegal threat but still worried, especially when Bad Boys began calling her workplace. They also called her mother, whom she had listed as a reference, though she never consented for them to use her mother’s number for that purpose.

In October 2019, Bad Boys sued Caldwell in Alameda Superior Court, demanding $4,500 plus costs and fees. Caldwell’s class action says she was never properly served. Bad Boys attempted substitute service at her parents’ home in Hercules, but Caldwell does not live there.

Della-Piana said her organization’s bail clinic, just a few years old, has been helping individuals fight their bail contracts while hoping the California Legislature would make clear that state laws prohibiting unfair, unlawful or fraudulent business practices apply to the bail industry. 

A Contra Costa Superior Court judge recently found such laws do apply, giving the green light to an individual countersuit against Bad Boys last year.

“I do think in some sense a class action is past due. There are millions of dollars in outstanding debts for contracts like Ms. Caldwell’s,” Della-Piana said. 

This is true, she noted, even if voters pass a ballot measure that would eliminate cash bail in California. 

“If money bail is abolished, people are thinking what will happen to bail bonds companies and the outstanding debts? One thing we're worried about is that collections efforts will actually increase if the proposition passes,” she said.

"Bail companies will be able to unlawfully extract as much money as possible before they go out of business.”

Caldwell’s action proposes a class of comprising every Bad Boys cosigner who signed an agreement on or after Oct. 30, 2015, and for which payment was owed, made or sought on or after that date.

Caldwell said she decided to take part in the case after learning that there were others who shared her experience and that her participation could help them.

“At this point it’s dragged on for so long I feel like I would rather fight it with other people, if others are going through the same thing,” she said.

Bad Boys did not return phone messages left at its Oakland and San Jose offices seeking comment on the case.

Caldwell seeks restitution, a declaration that Bad Boys’ credit bail agreements are unenforceable, and an injunction barring the agency from attempting to collect on them. It also demands that Bad Boys be ordered to provide cosigners with notices that comply with California’s civil code on consumer credit contracts.

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