A legal advocacy group has asked Baltimore-area judges to dismiss cases in Maryland District Court brought by an unlicensed bail bonds company that has 149 debt-collection suits pending worth more than $862,000.
The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a Feb. 2 letter, asked the judges to prohibit enforcement of cases where judgment was entered in favor of Baltimore’s Discount Bail Bonds.
“Maryland case law establishes that unlicensed entities will not be given the assistance of the courts in enforcing contracts where the underlying licensing statutes are regulatory in nature for the protection of the public,” the letter states in part. “Despite these legal principles, Baltimore City and Baltimore County District Court judges are regularly entering judgments for BDBB.”
Baltimore’s Discount Bail Bonds is a trade name for 4 Aces Bail Bonds Inc. and is the name the company uses when entering contracts, according to a Maryland Insurance Administration investigation into the company. 4 Aces also operated under the trade name “Bail Bonds Unlimited.” Neither of those names were licensed by the MIA nor were they registered as a trade name for 4 Aces, the state agency determined.
The insurance administration revoked 4 Aces’ license in an order in October for its practices related to Baltimore’s Discount Bail Bonds, among other reasons. The company has asked for a hearing on the matter, which has been scheduled for March 28, the insurance administration said.
Among the judges who received the letter were Baltimore City Circuit Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson, Baltimore County Administrative Judge Kathleen G. Cox and Chief Judge John P. Morrissey of the District Court of Maryland. A representative from Cox’s office said the judge had received the letter but declined to comment. Pierson did not respond to a request for comment, while Morrissey referred questions to the Maryland Judiciary.
A Judiciary spokeswoman said the court system is looking into the matter and “will take whatever action is appropriate.”
Myesha Braden, director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Criminal Justice Project, said Tuesday that they have not heard from any judges who received the letter.
Representatives from 4 Aces could not be reached for comment. In 2010, the father-and-son team behind 4 Aces pleaded guilty in federal court to multiple counts of tax, insurance and wire fraud.
The company appeared on the Lawyers Committee’s radar through the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service’s consumer protection clinic, which operates in District Court in Baltimore city once a week. The Lawyers’ Committee’s Skadden Fellow, Veryl Pow, focuses on using consumer law strategies to advance bail reform and encountered the name “Baltimore’s Discount Bail Bonds” while volunteering at the clinic. MVLS Attorney Deborah Devan discovered it was unlicensed and tried to use that as a defense in a case in January, but the judge decided for the company.
“There is substantial case law that supports our opinion that unlicensed companies are disallowed to enter contracts or do anything in the business of bail bonds and courts should not be able to enforce the contracts of unlicensed companies,” Pow said.
Bail reform has been a large topic of discussion in Maryland’s legal community, but the role of predatory lenders is often overlooked, Braden added.
Melissa Rothstein, director of policy and development at the state Office of the Public Defender, declined to comment specifically on Baltimore Discount Bail Bonds. But she said money bail creates a system where a client’s freedom is based on his or her ability to pay and families can incur massive debt to keep a loved one at home while awaiting trial, creating an environment that “can allow predatory companies to thrive.”
“While we believe that money bail is never appropriate, particularly at an amount that requires an individual or their family to incur debt to a private company, to the extent that it does exist, licensure and oversight are critically important components,” Rothstein said.
Advocates say the problem with unlicensed bail bonds companies also points to an information-sharing gap between the MIA and the state courts.
“There needs to be greater transparency and information flow between the MIA and information processed by administrative services at (the) district court level,” Pow said.
For example, the insurance administration found 4 Aces paid licensed bondsman from other companies to sell, solicit and negotiate the bail bond to avoid scrutiny because court clerks only record the name of the bail agent who posts the bond with the court, not the company that holds the underlying contract. By the time a civil case is pending, the district court is not aware of the bail bond company’s license status or about who posted bail, Lawyers Committee attorneys said.
“Courts don’t even ask the question and companies like Baltimore’s Discount Bail Bonds have been taking advantage of that,” Braden said.
Correction, Feb. 15: This article has been corrected to reflect that the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service runs the consumer protection clinic at the District Court in Baltimore city. Attorney Deborah Devan discovered Baltimore’s Discount Bail Bonds was unlicensed.
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