State auditor says regulations needed following fatal, botched bounty hunt in Butte

By: Mike Smith

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The state has suspended the insurance license of Butte bail bondsman Jay Steven Hubber, who has been charged in a man’s shooting death that occurred during a botched bounty hunt in December.

But state Auditor and Insurance Commissioner Troy Downing said regulatory authority over bondsmen is limited to insurance matters, and a bigger fix is needed for “wide open” fugitive recovery tactics in Montana “ripe for abuse.”

As it stands, he told The Montana Standard, there are virtually no regulations on what bondsmen and bounty hunters can and can’t do in Montana when trying to nab fugitives and others who have skipped bail, and that is leading to abuses.

“Law enforcement currently have more restrictions on their ability to investigate and arrest than recovery agents,” Downing said. “This unregulated authority to pursue and arrest fugitives creates dangerous situations.”

Downing said the Montana Legislature should put requirements in law, and even though they might fit better under the purview of the Montana Department of Labor or other agency, he is willing to push the issue in the next legislative session.

“A lot of people have been somewhat jaded watching the glorification of this line of business on TV without (it) really having any sideboards on the books in Montana,” he said. “I think there should be at least some requirements.

“It’s debatable where you draw that line … but this needs to be fixed. It has been abused and I think it does put public safety at risk.”

On Tuesday, his office suspended the surety insurance license Hubber had through Alibi Bail Bonds in Butte for allegedly violating insurance provisions and creating a “significant risk to the public” based on the “violent nature” of what occurred in Butte on Dec. 19.

Palmer Hoovestal, Hubber’s attorney, said Wednesday that the insurance allegations “are just wrong” and his client would present evidence at a hearing disputing them. He also said Hubber is innocent of the criminal charges against him.

According to prosecutors, Hubber and Nicholas Jaeger barged into William Harris’ house on Dec. 19 in an attempt to nab alleged bail-jumper David Sandoval. Harris, Sandoval and several others were in the house on South Main Street at the time.

Sandoval was tased and as he was wrestling with Hubber, Jaeger allegedly grabbed a gun from Hubber and shot Harris. Jaeger said Harris possibly had a pair of scissors in one hand and had threatened to kick him, but no other witnesses said he was armed.

Prosecutors charged Hubber and Jaeger with deliberate homicide and aggravated burglary and they pleaded not guilty to the charges last week. Hubber posted bond after his arrest but as of Wednesday, Jaeger remained in jail.

Jaeger was a convicted felon when he and his brother agreed to help Hubber apprehend Sandoval, and that in itself is not against the law, officials say.

But Hubber had posted a previous $2,000 bond for Jaeger, and according to statements from Jaeger and his brother, Hubber agreed to knock off some of that debt if Jaeger assisted with the apprehension that night.

According to Downing’s office, there are regulations under state law that prohibit that kind of arrangement.

The insurance license was suspended because of that, according to a notice issued by Downing’s office, and it cited a significant risk that Hubber will commit similar violations in making and enforcing bail bonds.

The notice also cited a “significant risk to the public safety and welfare based on the violent nature of the instant arrest attempt” on Dec. 19, and said Hubber also failed to notify the office of a previous assault conviction of his own.

The notice said Hubber could contest the suspension at a hearing if requested within 10 days, could do so in person or via video, and had a right to have an attorney at the hearing.

Hoovestal said the insurance allegations were wrong and there would be a hearing. In particular, he said, Hubber did not agree to reduce Jaeger’s bond debt in exchange for his assistance.

As to the criminal charges, Hoovestal said his client had “everything under control, or close to control” during the attempted apprehension and had no idea or reason to foresee that Jaeger would grab a gun Hubber had in his holster and shoot someone.

Downing’s calls for a bigger legislative fix to fugitive recoveries echo those a Missoula District Court judge made a few years ago while presiding over a bounty-hunting case.

It stemmed from an incident in 2017 in which a team of six bounty hunters went into the home of a Lolo family because a man owed a bond company $115 after missing a court hearing. They entered a bedroom and drew guns on the man, his wife and daughter.

The man who led the bounty hunt on behalf of a bail company was later given a three-year deferred sentence for criminal endangerment. A federal lawsuit that the ACLU of Montana and two law firms filed against that man, the bail company and its insurance companies was ultimately settled.

But there are no regulations in Montana on bounty hunting, meaning no licensing and training requirements, and no laws imposing any limits. In May 2018, the judge in the Missoula case called on the Legislature to fix that.

State Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, has backed efforts to do that but they fizzled out during the 2019 and 2021 legislative sessions. She told the Standard recently that she is termed out but hopes other lawmakers take up the issue in the 2023 session.

That is what Downing is calling for.

“The problem with the whole system in Montana is the (fugitive) recovery part is pretty loosey-goosey,” he said. “I think one of the reasons we have so many issues on the recovery side is there really are no requirements.”

He said there was a bill in the 2013 legislative session that would have imposed licensing and regulations like many states have but it was tabled. He said he wasn’t sure why “but there were some good concepts in there” and they should be pursued in the 2023 session.

There are some good operators in Montana, he said, but there are also those “using whatever tactics they think are appropriate that a lot of people would consider extreme.”

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