The armed agents woke up Donald Colas on the night of May 5, surrounding his Miami Gardens home and shining a light into the bedroom where his 2-year-old son was asleep.
Wielding a battering ram, stun guns and crow bars, they stormed the home searching for a fugitive who owed $750 following his arrest for driving with a suspended license.
The bounty hunters broke down two doors, searched under mattresses and quoted a 147-year-old Supreme Court opinion.
The man, Colas’ 28-year-old cousin Berlin Gabriel, wasn’t there. He hadn’t lived there in 20 years, Colas said.
What Colas says he didn’t know: His cousin used his address when police asked where he lived. That gave the bounty hunters — referred to as bail bond agents in Florida and bail recovery agents elsewhere — a right to locate and detain Gabriel at his listed residence.
As private agents licensed by Florida’s Department of Financial Services and empowered by Florida Administrative Code, they do not require a search warrant to enter the home where they believe the fugitive they’re seeking is residing.
“I did not know he was going to use it,” Colas said of his cousin. “I was very upset by it.”
In a video of the incident provided to the Miami Herald, Colas is heard telling the agents that Gabriel was not at the home, located on Northwest 32nd Avenue. He refused to let them enter the home, sparking a standoff between the band of bond agents and his family inside the home.
Colas lost that battle and the agents, working for Manhertz Bail Bonds in Miami, stormed through an exterior fence and the front door as they searched for Gabriel.
Now Colas is intent on filing a lawsuit. His lawyer, Faudlin Pierre, called the search a “state-sponsored home invasion.”
Miami Gardens Police were called to the home three times on the night of May 5, records show.
“We have more jurisdiction than police officers,” one of the bounty hunters said in a video of the incident.
Miami Gardens Police are reviewing the incident. A spokesman did not respond to a reporter’s questions about the video.
Pierre, the attorney representing Colas and his family members, sent a letter to Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, police chief Delma Noel-Pratt and the Miami Gardens City Commission on May 20 calling for an investigation and the reprimanding of the officers involved.
“If you choose to do nothing, this will reinforce my clients’ belief that this was nothing more than a state-sponsored home invasion,” Pierre wrote.
A police supervisor at the scene told the bond agents that police officers could not compel the family to open their doors. Soon after, the supervisor ordered responding officers to leave the scene, Pierre said in the letter. Officers were called for a second time, but waited outside the home as the bond agents rummaged inside. They left again.
After a third call, no one responded, Pierre said.
Gabriel was never captured, but a family member paid off the debt two days later. The damaged doors have not been repaired.
Gabriel had been arrested in November 2018 and released on bail shortly after. Bail bond companies in Florida charge defendants 10 percent of the bail set by the court for state crimes, and 15 percent for federal crimes.
In a court filing after missing an appearance, Gabriel said he had lost his job and had no money. Pierre said his client was never informed that Gabriel used his address in court documents.
“The guy didn’t appear for a traffic ticket, it’s not like the guy was a murderer,” Pierre said in an interview. “What gives these individuals, who are just basically hired contractors, to go into a third party’s home and destroy other people’s property?”
Pierre said he was in the process of preparing a civil lawsuit, but it is unclear who he would file against. Manhertz Bail Bonds did not respond to requests for comment.
Mike Nefzger, the southern director of the Florida Bail Agents Association and president of Big Mike’s Bail Bonds in West Palm Beach, said there was clearly a reason why the bond agents in the Miami Gardens case raided the home.
He said when someone is arrested, they give police an address. If Gabriel used Colas’ address, he said bond agents can assume it’s his address.
“It’s not like they picked a random house and went out and said this guy is staying here,” he said. “If he used his cousin’s address on his arrest record, you can make an assumption that that’s his address.”
Nefzger said the bail-bond recovery system in Florida is more regulated than those in other parts of the country.
While bail bond agents are colloquially referred to as bounty hunters, Nefzger said the term was a misnomer in Florida. State statute even prohibits agents from representing themselves to be a bail enforcement agent or bounty hunter — although their jobs are practically identical.
In Florida, bail agents can’t be felons and must be of “high character” and “approved integrity,” according to the Department of Financial Services. Applicants must be at least 18 years old to apply, and are permitted to carry a firearm.
“Florida, unlike a lot of states, we don’t have bounty hunters. You have to be a licensed bail agent in order to go pick up,” he said. “You have to go through all the requisite training that is required to get that license. That’s the one huge difference in Florida.”
The incident demonstrates the far-reaching protections and privileges afforded to bail bonds agents, said Brian Johnson, a professor at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, who authored a study on the American bail-bonds recovery industry.
Johnson said the Supreme Court’s 1872 decision in the Taylor vs. Taintor case gives bounty hunters license to pursue bail-skipping defendants at their home, or whatever address they list.
An oft-quoted section of the court filing stipulates that bounty hunters could arrest a defendant even on the Sabbath.
“If that person put down that address as one of the places where they live, under federal case law bounty hunters do have the legal authority to enter the residence,” Johnson said..
The Fourth Amendment right to protection against illegal search and seizures does not apply for private entities like bounty hunters, Johnson said.
“Legal guidelines are all based upon that surety contract,” he said. “By that person signing that surety contract, they have in essence waived that Fourth Amendment right.”
Lower-income defendants who cannot afford to pay their full bonds to the court are disproportionately affected by the pitfalls of the bail-bond industry. The American Civil Liberties Union has said the for-profit industry actually undermines justice by perpetuating a system in which poor defendants must choose between staying in jail as they face trial and owing bail bonds companies large amounts of money.
The American Bar Association has also staked an anti-cash-bail position.
Four U.S. states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin — have abolished commercial bail. The remaining 46 states allow private bail bond agents to apprehend fugitives, according to a 2013 study co-written by Johnson, the Grand Valley State University professor.
In Arkansas, Florida, Ohio and Texas, only licensed bail agents and other licensed professionals, like a private investigator, can hunt down bond absconders, according to the analysis.
California attempted to become the first state to abolish cash bail in August, but voters will decide the industry’s fate during a 2020 referendum.
Bail bond company owners argue that the system saves taxpayers money and is effective at ensuring that defendants show up for court. A lot of the time, Nefzger said, defendants miss court dates for valid reasons their attorneys may explain to a judge. The first step bail bond companies take is to pick up the phone.
“If they did abscond and we did go after them, then law enforcement isn’t involved,” he said. “The system is saving money.”
Colas, the homeowner, said he was glad no one was injured during the raid. He said the bond agents seemed happy to break into his home, at one point thanking the homeowner for letting them use their new “toy.”
“It’s weird to me that they feel they’re in the right to do that,” he said. “You’re violating something that’s very sacred to someone. Now you have my wife don’t want to be there. She doesn’t feel really secure there.”