Building on a court victory from late last year, the law firm Edelson PC has filed suits against two of the largest bail bonds companies in California, Aladdin Bail Bonds and All-Pro Bail Bonds. Edelson has proposed that both be expanded into class actions.

The filings seek to void existing contracts and seek restitution in the form of refunds for people who’ve co-signed bail bond contracts without getting state-mandated notices that make clear what that obligation entails.

Yaman Salahi, a partner at Edelson’s San Francisco office, told KQED that the contracts could affect a co-signer’s credit, while also exposing them to lawsuits and wage garnishment.

“Those notices would have explained to people the consequences of co-signing, including that the bail bond companies could come after them for the balance of those loans, even without going to the person who had been arrested first,” Salahi added.

According to a 2021 California appellate court decision, people who co-sign bail bonds are entering into a consumer credit loan contract and are protected by a part of California consumer protection law that mandates creditors provide notices that make clear to people what they are liable for when they co-sign on a debt.

This week’s filings ask that bail contracts where the co-signer wasn’t provided this documentation be declared invalid and unenforceable. The filings also seek restitution in the form of refunds for people who were affected by this practice.

It’s very common for people who get arrested to not have even close to the amount they’d need to post bail — especially in California, where research shows the state’s median bail amount is $50,000. That’s more than five times the median in the rest of the country.

To get around this, bail bonds companies will charge a nonrefundable premium to secure the rest of the loan. But many people can’t afford even those premium charges, which could still be several thousand dollars. Instead, people can put a small amount down and then commit to a payment plan for the rest of the premium. As part of the payment plan, incarcerated folks are required to have a co-signer — basically a guarantor on a loan — and a lot of times friends or family members serve as guarantors.

‘They knew that I couldn’t afford it’

When Sherrie Lewis-Sonza’s son was arrested a few years ago, she agreed to co-sign his bond with All-Pro Bail Bonds, a company that has more than 20 locations throughout the state and offers a 20% discount to union members.

“I don’t recall how much the bail bond was, but it was huge, and they knew that I couldn’t afford it,” Lewis-Sonza, 45, said. “But they still did it.”

She lives in subsidized housing in San Francisco, and said the bail payments cost her $300 per month. She has a fixed income, living off the $900 she gets from disability and Social Security.

A year after co-signing on her son’s All-Pro bond, she ended up signing onto another one after he was arrested again, this time with Aladdin Bail Bonds.

What a lot of co-signers like Lewis-Sonza don’t realize, Salahi said, is that bail bonds companies will come after them for the bail debts, even before seeking payment from the person who’s been arrested — and even if that person is no longer incarcerated.

This is one of the areas where providing an explanatory notice of liabilities could make a big difference in whether people decide to co-sign or not.

“They tend to go after the co-signers because they view those people as more creditworthy and able to pay,” Salahi said. “Many bail agents are very aggressive in trying to collect. And so people start receiving harassing phone calls, letters in the mail, phone calls at work.”

This is exactly what happened to Lewis-Sonza, even though she said her son was released within a week of his arrest.

“He was out at the time and they were still harassing us. They didn’t mess with him,” Lewis-Sonza said.

The debt burden stretched across her extended family. Not only did the company’s debt collectors dig up her grandmother’s information and start calling her, but the premium costs got so unaffordable for Lewis-Sonza that her brother and her son’s girlfriend also ended up co-signing. At one point, the bond companies also were garnishing the girlfriend’s wages, Lewis-Sonza said.

An important reminder here: The bail bond premium fee, which is usually 10% of full bail, is nonrefundable. So that’s a debt that will be owed even if the person who’s been arrested shows up in court or gets released.

People of color bear disproportionate impact

A 2017 study showed that bail bonds cost San Francisco residents at least $15 million a year, and that most of the time the people paying these fees are women of color. People of color are disproportionately affected by bail.

“You are already talking about a population that is being targeted because they are economically vulnerable,” Salahi said. “They’re not in a position to pay out of pocket, and they’re not in a position to post bail in some other way other than working through a bail agent.”

And there can be vulnerabilities outside just financial strain that co-signers are coping with as they navigate the burdens of bail debt. Rio Scharf runs the Bail Clinic, a service offered by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco to help people navigate the bail system. Scharf said the clinic has helped several clients who ended up in bail bond debt as a result of relationships involving domestic violence.

“Sometimes our clients were in violent relationships, and when their partner was arrested, either for violence against them or for some other act, they [felt] coerced into co-signing on behalf of that partner,” Scharf explained.

Scharf also has had clients “who finally defended themselves against an abusive partner [and] were then arrested for that act of self-defense and are now shouldering debt from that arrest and the bail bond they had to secure to get themselves released from jail.” In some cases, Scharf said, the debts must still be repaid even if charges were never pressed against them or their case was subsequently dismissed.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights was one of several legal groups that raised the concerns that resulted in the 2021 ruling, which reaffirmed that bail bonds companies are, in fact, required to issue explanatory documentation to co-signers.

Working in conjunction with other pro bono legal support, Scharf and the Bail Clinic have been able to eliminate over $23,000 of Lewis-Sonza’s debt and secured a refund of more than $11,000.

“A lot of people go through it every day and don’t know it. And I was just so lucky to come across them,” Lewis-Sonza said.

According to Scharf, between the All-Pro and Aladdin bonds, the combined premiums added up to $35,000. This means the combined full bail amounts were at least $350,000.

Both Salahi and Scharf see these co-signer issues as just a microcosm of a larger flawed system: cash bail.

“What the efforts of various people have demonstrated over the past several years is that cash bail is racist. It’s classist. It punishes people simply because they’re poor,” Salahi said. “It’s not effective in making sure that people show up for their trial dates or in keeping communities safe.”

Last year, the California Supreme Court decided to begin factoring in peoples’ financial standings when it came to setting bail, but it’s too soon to tell how uniformly it will be enforced.

Salahi sees this week’s filings as one way to help lift some financial burdens.

“These lawsuits are just one piece of a broader effort to scrutinize this industry, as well as the practice of cash bail. And hopefully change things so that we are in a more equitable situation when it comes to the criminal justice system in California,” he said.

A press contact for the American Bail Coalition said its spokesperson was not familiar with the practices at issue in this story and therefore unable to comment. The California Bail Agents Association also had no comment.

Neither Aladdin Bail Bonds nor All-Pro Bail Bonds returned KQED’s calls requesting comment.

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