Bounty Hunters Broke in, Handcuffed Lolo Man Over $115 — and it Might be Legal

Almost a year ago, a group of bounty hunters kicked in the door of a Lolo man’s home and found him asleep in bed with his wife and 4-year-old daughter.

The six-person team, wearing body armor and carrying semiautomatic rifles, pulled the man outside, handcuffed him, put him in their vehicle and drove away.

The four men and two women went to the house because the man owed $115 to a bondsman who had bailed him out of jail on misdemeanor charges of driving without insurance or a license.

Prosecutors charged five members of the team with felonies, but the bounty hunter’s leader — Vaness Baker — says he was well within his rights that night. Now a Missoula County judge is tasked with interpreting what is legal, and where the limits of a bounty hunter’s authority end.

Unlike some states, Montana has no regulations concerning bounty hunters. They are not licensed, trained, or overseen by any state agency, and there are no laws expressly allowing their existence or governing their limits. A bail bondsman is licensed as a surety agent, but no members of the bounty hunter team were licensed bondsman; they were simply hired by one to apprehend the Lolo man.

And whether they are allowed to break into his house to get him may depend on a nearly 150-year-old decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The situation started when the Lolo man, Eugene Mitchell, was arrested in March 2016 for the two misdemeanors. When he didn’t show up for court, a Ravalli County judge issued a $1,000 arrest warrant, and Mitchell was picked up in Missoula County in January 2017. He then hired Michael Ratzburg of First Call Bail & Surety to pay for his $1,000 warrant.

Another warrant was issued for Mitchell’s arrest in April 2017, and Ratzburg asked for Mitchell’s release on the warrant he paid to be revoked as well. The bondsman also wrote to the Montana Civil Assistance Group (MCAG) — an organization that calls its focus to “protect, preserve and uphold the Montana way of life” and offers “fugitive apprehension” among its services — asking them to find and arrest Mitchell for him.

According to a minute entry from MCAG records, Ratzburg told Baker, a founder of MCAG, that Mitchell owed the bondsman $115 against his bond.

Over the next two days, according to court documents, a team of bounty hunters from MCAG staked out Mitchell’s house, leading to two incidents that underlie the criminal charges.

Around 10:30 on April 21, a woman and her daughter drove up to the home to pick up money the girl was owed for babysitting. According to court records, Baker and his team used two cars to block the woman into the driveway. Then, wearing body armor and carrying guns, they surrounded her car and questioned her for more than 15 minutes about Mitchell’s whereabouts.

On April 23 at around 9:20 p.m., Mitchell, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter were asleep in bed when a loud bang at the front door woke them. Baker and his team, again clad in body armor and carrying handguns and rifles, had kicked in the door.

Five members of the team came into the bedroom, with a sixth remaining in the living room. Mitchell reported that Baker pointed his rifle at the family lying in bed. Mitchell was brought outside, handcuffed and taken away.

Mitchell was taken to the Ravalli County jail, which would not accept him because the MCAG team did not have any paperwork or warrant allowing them to take him into custody. Mitchell was booked after it was discovered he had a different warrant out for his arrest, but that warrant only allowed him to be arrested by a peace officer.

In August, Deputy Missoula County Attorney Brittany Williams charged five members of the bounty hunter team with felonies.

According to court records, members of the team told investigators they believed being involved with MCAG made them peace officers, with one saying she was unsure if MCAG was a private organization or a government agency.

Baker allegedly told detectives he wasn’t sure what authority he had to invade Mitchell’s home that night, and that he was following orders from the other leader of MCAG, who was not a part of the raid.

He was charged with three counts of felony assault with a weapon, as well as felony aggravated burglary and two misdemeanors for unlawful restraint.

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