East Palo Alto resident Juan Pinto's nightmare began with a pounding on his front door at 3 a.m. on March 1. Groggy and undressed, Pinto asked who was there.
"Immigration," a man said, so Pinto opened the door, he recalled.
Three men in uniforms entered the home carrying rifles and handguns. Pinto went to the bedroom to put on his clothes. While there, he instructed his wife, Laura Saldana, to record on her cellphone what was happening.
"I don't trust these guys," he told her.
The men, who turned out to be bail bonds bounty hunters, were looking for the brother of Pinto's brother-in-law, whom Pinto said he hasn't seen for 10 years. That didn't stop the bounty hunters from interrogating the family -- which also includes Pinto and Saldana's four children, his parents and a brother -- and demanding they provide identification.
A stack of driver's licenses, visas, passports can be seen piled on a table in the seven-minute, 23-second video Saldana recorded.
"Is that your passport?" a beefy man in a uniform asked her.
"Yes, that's my passport and this is my visa," she said.
"OK, are you here on a visa?"
"No, I'm a resident," she said.
"You're a resident."
"Um hm," she said.
"And where? (Inaudible)"
"No. I have address that is permanent," she said.
"Permanent? You're a resident, though."
"Yes. Resident," she said.
"So -- how about you?" the man asked Pinto.
"I'm a U.S. citizen."
"OK -- and you?" he asked Pinto's mother, Margerita Pinto.
"She's a citizen," Pinto said.
"You're all citizens here," the man said.
"Yes," Saldana replied. "Everybody's citizens."
About one-and-half minutes into the questioning, Saldana leaned into the camera and whispered in Spanish:
"Immigration just came here to our house."
Although the bounty hunters were not employed by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, the incident underscores the extraordinary liberty the law affords bail bonds recovery agents, or bounty hunters, and how persons under duress can easily be coerced into divulging information they are not required to give.
The incident also calls into question the tactics bounty hunters use to capture fugitives.
It wasn't until well after the questions regarding immigration status that one of the men gave the couple his business card, which showed they are bounty hunters. The men wore all dark blue shirts with an insignia and khaki pants.
The men continued to question the family about the fugitive relative, including demanding Pinto's Social Security number. When Pinto asked why they needed his number, one man simply said in a firm voice, "I need it."
The men also came back the next night at about 11:45 p.m., Pinto said. They allegedly hopped the wrought-iron gate and shined flash lights into the home's rear windows, which didn't have any curtains.
"We used to keep the windows and the doors open, now we have to lock everything up," Pinto said. "My kids are really scared of going to school or of being home too. They think immigration is going to separate us from our kids."
"I have never had any trouble of any kind, not even in high school," Pinto added.
Pinto's parents, who own the home, both have medical issues that have been aggravated by the incidents, he said. His wife can't sleep and their four children ages 10, 9, 7 and 19 months now sleep on an air mattress in the couple's bedroom because they are afraid.
Bryan Hudgins, the recovery agent whose name is on the card given to Pinto, lists his business as Darknight Fugitive Recovery of Vallejo on the card. He told the Weekly by phone this week that Darknight are "contractors through ICE."
But ICE officials refuted Hudgins' claims.
"ICE does not hire private contractors to conduct immigration-enforcement actions," agency spokesman James Schwab said in an email, quoting ICE policy.
Schwab noted that it is a federal crime for anyone to impersonate a federal agent, although he could not comment on whether any laws were broken in this case.
The Pintos asked East Palo Alto police to take a report, but police Commander Jeff Liu said the department did not because Pinto gave the men "consent" to enter his home and see their identifying documents. Thus the actions were not unlawful, Liu said.
The U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect "persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures" without just cause and a warrant, but that applies only to governmental authorities.
Bounty hunters are governed under the California Penal Code. They must complete a 40-hour power-of-arrest training through the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training and other certification-training courses; they are not allowed to represent themselves "in any manner" as being a sworn law-enforcement officer and their uniforms must not contain certain words, such as "United States," "Bureau," "Task Force" or similar words that a reasonable person might mistake for a government agency. They cannot carry a metal badge and must follow certain procedures when entering any law-enforcement jurisdiction.
But bounty hunters do have leeway in their behavior, according to a study by Gerald D. Robin, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, Connecticut.
Bounty hunters don't have to "knock and announce" before breaking down doors to search for a fugitive; they don't have to Mirandize someone, and incriminating statements obtained by coercion are even admissible in court, he noted.
Hudgins is licensed by the state Department of Insurance to transact on behalf of All-Pro Bail Bonds Inc. of Fairfield, California, as a bail bonds agent. He has no complaints or disciplinary actions, according to state records. The Pintos can file a complaint with the department, which licenses bail bonds agents.
If an investigation finds wrongdoing, the bail agent might face penalties or even have a license revoked, said Nancy Kincaid, press secretary for Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and the California Department of Insurance.
The Pintos are now following Liu's recommendations to guard their privacy. They have affixed "no trespassing" signs on the wrought-iron fencing and on the house and door. If the couple tells the bounty hunters to leave and they won't, the Pintos will call 911. California trespass law makes it a crime to enter a property where a no-trespass notice is posted or when the trespasser refuses to leave after a request by a property owner, agent or the police.