NEW ORLEANS — A new state law unconstitutionally lets New Orleans bail bond companies off the hook for overcharging customers for years, a lawsuit filed in state court Tuesday claims.
The lawsuit was filed in New Orleans on behalf of Jerome Morgan, who spent two decades behind bars before being exonerated on a murder conviction. The suit says he was overcharged for a bond while his case was pending in 2014. However, if granted class action status by a state judge, it would cover thousands of people who, the suit says, were overcharged for bail bond premiums.
The Southern Poverty Law Center had complained to the state Department of Insurance in 2017 that bond companies had been overcharging low-income criminal defendants. In February, the department issued a directive stating that premiums collected by bail bond companies could not exceed 12 percent in New Orleans under a 2005 state law. The directive said charges in excess of 12 percent since that year must be refunded. Inmate advocates estimated as much as $6 million could be at stake.
But lawmakers this year passed, and Gov. John Bel Edwards signed, a bill that says no repayments are required.
The lawsuit filed for Morgan by civil rights attorney and Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley says the law is unconstitutional for multiple reasons. Among them it includes that the law is retroactive and that it singles out for special benefits New Orleans bail bond companies that overcharged.
The suit has a high-profile former inmate in Morgan, who faced the murder charge at age 17. Though convicted, two witnesses later recanted. He was exonerated with help from the Innocence Project New Orleans and was released from prison after serving 20 years in the 1993 slaying. After his conviction was overturned, but before charges were dropped, he was freed on $25,000 bond. The suit says the bail bond company, Blair’s Bail Bonds, charged 13 percent premium instead of the legal maximum 12 percent.
The bond company declined comment. A spokeswoman for the Association of Louisiana Bail Underwriters said the group would have a statement later Tuesday.