Bounty hunter raid not an isolated incident

September 06, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

AND YET MORE tales from the world of bounty hunters.

Wednesday's column told the story of one Harry Cokley's experience with bounty hunters, or bail recovery agents, who came to his house early one morning in August looking for his stepson, Marc Hill. Cokley said four men identified themselves as police, marched into his house after he opened the door and conducted a warrantless search without consent. Cokley alleged that the men produced a bag of marijuana in an attempt to intimidate his son's girlfriend into revealing Hill's whereabouts.

The agents were working for Buddy's Bailbonds. So far, no one at that company has commented on Cokley's accusations.

Kim Coppage, who lives in the 3500 block of Elmley Ave. in Baltimore, said her experience was similar and more recent.

It happened Sunday. Coppage said she was awakened by the sound of banging and kicking at her front door. She looked out and saw a man dressed in navy blue wearing some kind of badge. When she opened the inside door, that man and two others opened her unlocked storm door and barged into the house.

They flashed a picture of a man and asked if Coppage knew him. Coppage said she didn't. One of the men told Coppage that someone had told them the man was seen going into her house. When she asked the source of the information, the men said they couldn't tell her.

Coppage said the men were verbally abusive and told her to shut up when she asked to see identification. One of the men "got up in my face and reached for a stick by his side," Coppage said. The man threatened to arrest her if she spoke another word, wouldn't let her tend to her 5-month-old granddaughter who was crying upstairs and threatened have the infant taken to social services.

"I had to wait and watch these people go through my house and do what they want to do," Coppage said. The experience left her in tears. She said she hasn't slept well since.

Coppage figured out they were bail bondsmen after calling police, who confirmed they hadn't sent any officers to her home.

There is a distinct difference between the Cokley and Coppage cases. Marc Hill did, at one time, live at Cokley's address, and he gave it to the bail bondsmen. The man the bail bondsmen were looking for at Coppage's house had never lived there. Her dwelling is one of those "third-party" places that a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling says bounty hunters have limited rights to enter.

Coppage said the same three men and a fourth man went to her son's house Thursday morning and gave the father of her 5-month-old granddaughter the same business: barging into the house uninvited, asking questions, intimidating.

This conduct is called criminal trespass when we do it, but, apparently the law gives bounty hunters the right to break the law in order to catch those who've broken the law. Don't fret if you can't figure out that one. Not many can. No one seems quite sure just what rights ordinary citizens have when bounty hunters come a-callin', even if, as in Coppage's case, they don't know the bail jumper from King Tut.

James Horner of Dundalk may not know all the rights either, but he knows he doesn't have to open his door. About two months ago, some men came to the retired Baltimore police sergeant's house looking for his granddaughter, who used to live with him.

"I'm familiar with the operations," Horner said. "They came to my door and presented themselves as members of a federal warrant task force. They had these badges hanging around their necks, and one guy said, `I'm Agent So-and-So.'"

Horner said he grew suspicious when it became apparent that the men knew no police jargon and didn't even know where Baltimore's Patterson Park was.

"I was real leery of them," Horner recalled. "I didn't let them in the house or anything. I realized after they left, they weren't real police officers."

As in Cokley's case, we have another situation where bounty hunters misidentified themselves as law enforcement officers. (Coppage said hers wasn't a case of bounty hunters misidentifying themselves as much as not identifying themselves at all.) Somebody should see something terribly wrong with this picture.

Baltimore Police Department spokeswoman Nicole Monroe certainly does.

"It's unfortunate," Monroe said, "when bounty hunters identify themselves falsely as police officers, because it makes it more dangerous for real police officers responding to a real emergency. But there are bounty hunters who do the job correctly. There is a right way to do it. The ones who act badly make it tough for everyone."

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