When Kiara Caldwell bailed her friend out of jail, she had no idea it would turn into a years-long nightmare of incessant harassing phone calls, threats and litigation.
Now she’s fighting back.
Through a class action lawsuit filed this week in Alameda County, the 31-year-old receptionist challenges San Jose-based Bad Boys Bail Bonds for locking people into illegal credit contracts that leave them drowning in debt.
Elissa Della-Piana—Caldwell’s attorney and legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Bay Area chapter—called the class-action case the first of its kind.
“We think this is the first consumer class action against Bad Boys—or any bail company in California, for that matter,” she tells San Jose Inside. “We’ve been representing so many individuals in cases where Bad Boys didn’t follow the law, and we’ve just seen so many of them that we thought class-action would be the best approach.”
If a defendant can’t afford their own release, companies such as Bad Boys offer to pony up on their behalf in exchange for a non-refundable fee that usually amounts to about 10 percent of bail. Caldwell’s lawsuit filed Tuesday charges the bail bonds giant of violating consumer protection laws by deceptively putting cosigners on the hook for the full premium in “credit bail” contracts requiring monthly payments.
Officials from Bad Boys Bail Bonds—a South Bay firm founded in 1998 by C. Jeffrey Stanley, an ex-bounty hunter with a penchant for in-your-face marketing tactics—have yet to return multiple requests for comment.
Had Caldwell known what she was getting into, she says she would never have signed the contract Bad Boys presented in the hours after her friend’s June 21, 2018, arrest.
Word is Bond
The ordeal began when a bail bonds agent phoned Caldwell about her close friend—someone she considered a sister—booked on a shoplifting charge. A security guard taking classes at Chabot College at the time, Caldwell says she had little cash to spare.
But she says she knew her friend had no one else to turn to.
So, she showed up to the Bad Boys Bail Bonds’ Oakland branch to meet the guy who called her. The agent told Caldwell that authorities set the friend’s bail at $5,000 and he’d need $1,000 to get her out from behind bars.
Caldwell offered to cough up what she could: $500. Since Bad Boys refused debit payment, the agent directed her to walk down the street to pull out cash from an ATM.
The agent proceeded to bombard Caldwell with paperwork, she says, asking for info about her job, her family’s phone numbers and the make and model of her car. With no experience with bail bonds, Caldwell complied, though she says she felt rushed and just wanted to jump through all the hoops to free her friend.
“This whole thing, from start to finish, took about 15 minutes,” she recounts.
At no point did the bond agent explain Caldwell’s obligation as a cosigner for the full premium of $4,5000, per the complaint. She says she had no clue that the $500 was considered the first installment of a monthly payment plan.
When those payments came due, she says, the collectors were relentless.
“They started making the calls all the time, calling my mom, calling my job, calling all the time nonstop,” Cadlwell says in a phone call. “Then I got sued, which put even more stress on me. I didn’t—and I still don’t—have this type of money to even give them. If I did, I would’ve paid them just to go away.”
Many people on the receiving end of those phone calls eventually feel that way.
“These contracts are signed at the most vulnerable moments of people’s lives, when a loved one is incarcerated and—in addition to how important that person is to them—they’re also often a breadwinner or a childcare provider,” Della-Piana explains. “To leave them in jail would cause a lot of terrible ripple effects. That’s a lot of pressure. And many people in that moment don’t realize they’re signing up for a debt they can’t afford.”
Often a cosigner only finds out about their obligation once the debt collectors come calling, which Della-Piana says they do at all hours and using tactics explicitly banned by consumer-protection laws. They call friends and family and employers, she says. They threaten to go after people’s cars and homes.
“Then there’s the way Bad Boys, among other commercial bail companies, go after these debts,” she says. “They do so in a way that pretends to have the weight of the criminal justice system behind them. The implied threat is that people will go to jail if they don’t pay up, which makes people make incredible sacrifices of rent, of food, of healthcare expenses that their families need to survive.”
Recognizing that cosigners to consumer credit deals can be confused or misled about their obligations, California has enacted robust disclosure requirements for lenders.
Under Civil Code Sec. 1799.91, a company must inform cosigners of their liability under a credit contract. The notice must be spelled out either right above the space reserved for their signature or on a separate sheet of paper.
The law even mandates specific language and font size for the notice, which must explain that the cosigner is expected to guarantee the debt if the borrow does not and should think carefully before they accept that responsibility.
The disclosure must alert the cosigner to the fact that they will also have to pay late fees or collection cost, that they risk litigation and wage garnishment and that a default could become part of their credit record.
If a creditor falls short of those transparency requirements, state law prohibits them from enforcing the contract at all.
The class action claim filed for Caldwell says Bad Boys eschewed those legally required disclosures as a matter of course. And when those cosigners fall behind on payments, the company often takes them to court.
That’s what they did to Caldwell. Bad Boys sued Caldwell exactly a year ago, demanding she cough up the $4,500 in addition to late fees and other costs. The lawsuit, however, gave her the resolve to take the matter to court.
How many consumers fell prey to the scheme described in Caldwell’s case remains to be seen, but Della-Piana says she expects to find out from electronic court records and Bad Boys Bail Bonds’ internal databases.
Anecdotally, she says she has reason to believe the number of victims is in the several thousands and that the South Bay bail bonds firm has been rushing people into legally dubious credit deals since at least 2015.
Della-Piana’s branch of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights has been helping people fight their credit contracts for the past few years through a designated bail clinic. Though existing consumer protections should prevent the kind of fraud outlined in Caldwell’s case, among others, she says she hoped state legislators would refine those laws by clarifying their application to the bail industry.
Thankfully, she says, a Contra Costa Superior Court judge determined those laws applicable to commercial bail, which opened the door to a countersuit against Bad Boys. A class-action, Della-Piana says, would simply apply that ruling more broadly.
Even if Californians end cash bail by passing Prop. 25 on Nov. 3, Della-Piana says that won’t necessarily stop collectors from going after cosigners for ill-gotten credit deals.
“Our fear is that if it passes, with all this outstanding debt, those bail companies could accelerate efforts to collect it unlawfully,” she says. “It’s possible they’ll make a last-ditch effort to squeeze as much money as possible out of this industry while they still can.”