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In The Press

Bail agents investigated after man was beaten outside home

Two bond agents beat and pepper-sprayed a man when they showed up at his home after he missed a court date in late November. Now their conduct is the subject of a criminal investigation that raises questions about what agents are allowed to do under Florida law.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office is investigating whether bond agents Brandon Gaines and Chase Walton were legally justified in the force they used against Anthony Michael Hall, 24, outside his Lauderdale Lakes apartment on Nov. 29. A neighbor captured part of the confrontation on video.

In the video, Hall is seen outside his apartment unit bare chested, the agents on either side of him. One punched Hall in the face. The other swung at him several times with what appears to be a metal baton. The first blasted the man’s face with spray.

“The neighbor who recorded the video called us to the scene,” said Broward Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Joy Oglesby. The results of the investigation will be sent to prosecutors at the Broward State Attorney’s Office when it is complete, she said.

The neighbor who recorded the confrontation, Lara Laign, also posted the video to YouTube and shared it with Hall’s civil attorney, Russell Williams, who provided the video to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

“Get on the ground! Get on the ground, now!” one agent yelled as the second swung the metal bar at Hall’s back.

Hall didn’t comply, despite repeated blows to the legs, arms and back.

Laign said she noticed the commotion and pulled out her cellphone to record. Her video did not show the beginning of the encounter between Hall and the agents or what led to the confrontation. Multiple attempts to reach Gaines, Walton and the bond agency that employs them, AAA Star Bail Bonds of West Palm Beach, were unsuccessful.

Laign’s video begins a split second before Hall was punched in the face. The defendant held his hand up, then covered his head in anticipation of being struck with the baton.

“He was up against the wall and they were just hitting him,” Laign said.

After he was on the ground, one of the agents was seen walking to a woman in the doorway of Hall’s apartment, closing the door as she backed away, smashing the window with the metal baton, then walking back to Hall and punching him while he’s down.

“What they did to him was unacceptable,” said Williams, Hall’s lawyer. “The video speaks for itself.”

Hall had failed to show up for a Palm Beach County court hearing two weeks earlier. He had been out on a $2,000 bond, and the bond agents are authorized by law to bring him in to answer for his crime: driving with a suspended license.

Hall’s criminal record shows numerous arrests for non-violent offenses, including a conviction on a drug possession case for which he was on probation in Broward County. Other charges involving domestic violence and child abuse without bodily harm appear to have been dropped. Most of his arrests have been for driving with a suspended or revoked license.

He’s now in custody in Broward County awaiting a hearing on the probation violation.

Gaines has been a bond agent since 2012 and Walton since 2014, according to the Florida Department of Finance. Felony convictions would disqualify them from holding their license as bond agents.

Jon Moore, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said Walton has no prior complaints. Gaines, he said, was investigated three times within the last five years — twice for “forcing his way into a location and causing property damage” and a third time for allegedly impersonating a law enforcement officer. “None [of the complaints] led to administrative action due to either no violations of insurance code found or no evidence to support the allegations,” Moore said.

Authority of bail agents

While bail bond agents are commonly referred to as “bounty hunters,” that label is incorrect in Florida, said Mark Heffernan, vice president of the Florida Bail Agents Association and owner of the Florida Bail Bond School in Miami, which trains agents.

“Florida is one of the most strictly regulated states in the country when it comes to bail and bail agents,” said Heffernan. “Florida, a long time ago, wanted to prevent the kind of yahoo renegade behavior associated with people who represent themselves as bounty hunters.”

Bond agents are a key part of the bail system. When someone is arrested, a judge typically sets bail that the defendant can post so that they don’t have to wait in jail for their trial. The money is supposed to be returned when the case is resolved.

Agents come in when the defendant cannot afford the full bail amount. If a judge sets bail at $10,000, the defendant can pay a bond agency 10 percent, or $1,000. The agency then posts that amount on behalf of the defendant. When the case is resolved, the bond agency gets its money back. The 10 percent is not returned to the defendant — the agency keeps it as the price of its service.

When a defendant skips out while on bond, the agency will be required to pay the state the remaining 90 percent unless they can recapture him or her, Heffernan said. The agency has 60 days to bring the defendant back into custody or pay the remaining money.

They can cross state lines. They can search the defendant’s home without a warrant. And they don’t need to read the defendant’s Miranda rights, Heffernan said.

Their authority to use force is not bound by written guidelines — they can bring a defendant into custody, and they can protect themselves just like other citizens. “In contrast to the police, a bail agent has the option to leave and call law enforcement for assistance,” Heffernan said.

Before earning a license, bond agents must complete 120 hours of classroom study and an online course. They also must work under the supervision of a licensed agent for one year.

Heffernan said he reviewed the video of Hall’s confrontation but was hesitant to pass judgment on the conduct of Gaines and Walton without knowing what happened before the recording started.

“Apprehending fugitive defendants is inherently risky,” he said. “A few months ago a licensed bail agent in north Florida was shot at by a defendant who missed court on a $2,000 bond. Bail agents, like police, sometimes behave inappropriately when they are fearful and full of adrenaline.”

But he said the agent who smashed the window was clearly in the wrong.

“There is never justification for damaging private property or engaging in excessive force,” Heffernan said.

As in the case of Gaines and Walton, law enforcement can review the agents’ use of force and decide whether criminal charges are warranted. If prosecutors charge them with a felony, their state-issued licenses would be automatically suspended. If they are convicted, the licenses would be revoked.

Defendants also have the option of suing.

The state’s Department of Finance, which issues the licenses, has a helpline for anyone who has a complaint about bond agents. The number is 877-693-5236.

– Courtesy of Sun Sentinel