Today, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Santoni, Vocci & Ortega, LLC, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of two Maryland residents challenging 4 Aces Bail Bonds Incorporated’s (trading as Baltimore’s Discount Bail Bonds’ (“BDBB”)) alleged use of Maryland state courts while operating as an unlicensed bail bonds company profiting off money bail. The lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, also names as defendants the surety insurance companies that underwrite its bail bonds, the law firm that files debt collections suits on its behalf, and the collections agency that collects its debt.
“Money bail is an unfair system that disproportionately harms low-income communities of color and the plaintiffs in this case epitomize the harm and suffering that result from this unfair scheme,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “BDBB’s efforts to collect premiums, which as an unlicensed bail bond company they were not legally entitled collect, is the height of exploitation of the criminal justice system and causes people who are already struggling to fall even further below the poverty line. While bail reform must occur systematically, unlicensed bail bond companies should not be able to evade regulation and profit off low-income communities of color who routinely fall victim to high money bail.”
Prior to July 2017, when the new Maryland Rule 4-216.1 was in effect, judges routinely issued high money bail amounts without consideration of a criminal defendant’s financial means, creating a two-tier system of justice where pretrial access to liberty was made dependent on one’s financial ability. As a result, indigent families of color regularly contracted with bail bond companies to bail out their loved ones in exchange for a premium – a fee charged by the bail bond company amounting to 10 percent of total bail. Because the premiums are non-refundable, even if a criminal defendant appears in court or is not found to be guilty, family members who sign bail contracts are often trapped in cycles of harassment, debt, and incarceration. To collect the premiums, bail bond companies will harass and file debt collection lawsuits against each co-signer. Because the vast majority of co-signers are unrepresented in collections suits, judgments are often entered against them, allowing the bail bond companies to garnish their income, seize their assets, or even request arrest warrants.
“Not only was I sued, but my wages were garnished by BDBB,” said plaintiff Rebekah Shirbach.
The complaint seeks compensatory damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief, on behalf of individuals who have had judgments entered against them by BDBB. According to Jane Santoni of Santoni, Vocci & Ortega, LLC, “People deserve to be treated fairly. This case illustrates the unfair treatment of people in desperate situations.” The complaint additionally raises violations of the Maryland Consumer Debt Collection Act and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, as well as alleges conspiracy to collect payments by unlawful means and unjust enrichment.
The lawsuit is part of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s ongoing efforts to challenge the debt collection suits filed by BDBB. In February 2018, the Lawyers’ Committee sent a letter to the Maryland Judiciary requesting that the District Court dismiss, sua sponte, all 149 pending cases filed by the company for the tune of $862,111.81 on the grounds of being unlicensed.
To read the full complaint, click here.
About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. Now in its 55th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is continuing its quest to “Move America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.
About Santoni, Vocci & Ortega, LLC
Santoni, Vocci & Ortega, LLC is a private law firm dedicated to the protection of vulnerable people who are injured physically or economically by the illegal acts of others. Its work includes protection of tenants, debtors, and other borrowers, and it seeks redress through individual and class claims.
Derrick Robinson, Lawyers’ Committee, [email protected], 202-662-831