BUFALLO, NY- Jake Reinhardt, his fiancée, and their 3-year-old daughter were all sound asleep when someone banged on their front door so hard that the noise echoed through the cold, dark January night.
Reinhardt jolted out of bed and entered the living room, where he saw through a sliver of his window shade what appeared to be a man armed with a long gun by his front door.
“Open it up or we’ll kick it in!” the man yelled.
Reinhardt said he was terrified as he slowly walked toward the front door, and asked “Who’s that?”
The man outside raises his gun toward the front door and again screams, “Open the door, now!”
Reinhardt said he spotted two Buffalo police officers on the sidewalk, which gave him enough peace of mind to open the door. Maybe they have the wrong house, he thought.
A shirtless and barefoot Reinhardt opened the door to face not one, but two men on his porch pointing long guns at his chest. He moved to the left of the door, with his hands raised.
One of the men wanted to know the whereabouts of his brother, who jumped a $5,000 bail bond for three misdemeanors out of Pennsylvania.
As it turns out, the two men were not police officers, but bounty hunters looking to extradite his brother. At least one of them is from Pennsylvania, a city police official said, but even less is known about the other man who assisted him.
Reinhardt said the bounty hunters searched his home and the unrelated upstairs tenant’s apartment without any consent or warrants. At least one of them pointed his gun at his fiancée, who is eight-months pregnant, while she clutched their 3-year-old daughter. Startled by her presence, the bounty hunter ordered her to release her crying daughter.
“I was terrified,” said Taylor Schmieder, Reinhardt’s fiancée. “Neither of us had any idea what was going on.”
The hectic scene, some of which was recorded by a home surveillance camera, played out while several Buffalo police officers idly stood watching.
Reinhardt shared the footage with News 4 Investigates to verify the incident.
Although Reinhardt said he has always supported the police, his conscience would not let him ignore how the police department handled the situation at his home.
“These are people who took an oath to serve and protect the community,” he said.
“And in my eyes they aided in nothing short of an armed home invasion. They were all responsible. It was an egregious attack on my home and my family and my civil rights.”
Rules and regulations for bounty hunters vary from state to state.
Some states, such as Pennsylvania, do not regulate bounty hunters at all. At least four states have banned bounty hunters completely, while 22 states, including New York, require them to be licensed.
But this incident raises questions about how police departments interact with bounty hunters, who are private citizens granted special powers by an archaic 1872 Supreme Court ruling. Those powers, which include extraditing a fugitive across state lines and entering a fugitive’s home without a warrant, exceed the legal authority that law enforcement officers have in similar situations.
Reinhardt said he asked the bounty hunters if they had a warrant several times. Although one of the bounty hunters claimed he did have a warrant, he never produced one. Instead, he showed him a bail bond slip as he was preparing to leave.
“Mr. Reinhardt asked everybody he could ask to see the warrant,” said attorney Anthony Rupp, who is representing Reinhardt’s household, the tenants upstairs and Reinhardt’s mother, whose home was also searched by the same bounty hunters, in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court.
“The entire home was searched at gunpoint without the warrant being produced.”
They are suing the City of Buffalo, each police officer at the scene, the Bail Shop LLC in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and the bounty hunters, whose names are still unknown.
Calls to the Bail Shop seeking interviews with the owner or the bounty hunters were not returned
Nerves were frayed, but no one was injured in this incident and the bounty hunters left empty-handed with police officers.
But the Buffalo Police Department has not always been this lucky to leave unscathed after assisting bounty hunters.
In 1998, city Police Officer Robert McLellan died on duty after being hit by a car on the Kensington Expressway while assisting Maryland bounty hunters in trying to nab a fugitive who jumped a $50,000 bail bond.
The death resulted in the state legislature passing a law in 2000 that established new oversight and accountability for bounty hunters.
Bounty hunters in New York now must complete basic training and notify local law enforcement agencies when they are searching for a fugitive.
But Buffalo’s manual of procedures remains silent on how officers should interact with bounty hunters, even after McLellan’s death.
In Reinhardt’s case, his surveillance camera recorded small talk between two officers that revealed how little they knew about the armed men they had just watched enter his home.
“I don’t know what agency that is either,” one of the officers said.
“Me either. They’re from PA, I think he said,” the other office replied.
Reinhardt said as bad as the situation was for his family and tenants, he is grateful that the incident did not escalate further.
“I still want people held accountable as I would be held accountable,” he said. “I hold everyone that was present that night responsible.”
Rupp said the police department failed its basic mission to protect and serve the community, and instead witnessed and participated in “the most illegal search of a home that I’ve ever seen.”
“They participated in gunpoint armed search, a midnight rousting of two young families with screaming babies, and it’s utterly outrageous,” Rupp said.
Buffalo Police Captain Jeff Rinaldo said he reviewed the surveillance footage and concluded that the officers did not do anything wrong.
“Based on my initial review of this, the officers did not knock on the door, they did not request the homeowner let these individuals into their home and from that point on the only question left in terms of a criminal matter is whether or not [the bounty hunters’] entrance and means of gaining entry into that residence was appropriate,” Rinaldo said.
But a Buffalo police supervisor had a different opinion than Rinaldo when he met with Reinhardt on his porch after the incident. The conversation was picked up by the surveillance camera.
“This is a failure on our part,” the supervisor said to Reinhardt.
“I don’t know if it’s not enough training or what with our guys. They should have clarified any type of entry into a home. It’s very serious in nature.”
The supervisor also said that he would write up a report and he would not be surprised if this “went up to the state attorney general.”
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn declined to comment but did confirm that an investigation is underway.
Rinaldo said the police department will review its own policies and procedures to determine if anything needs to be addressed.
“It’s one of those weird situations where the law – not to use a term it’s gray – but it sort of is,” Rinaldo said, “and there’s not a lot of established protocol for these people in terms of how they operate and to what ends they can utilize in an attempt to take somebody back into custody.”
Meanwhile, Rupp said his clients feel terrorized by the event and indicated that the police department has plenty of work to do in assessing their own protocols
“I can’t believe that trained officers from a professional police agency would conduct and assist in helping other people conduct an armed intrusion into a home without checking to see if that’s okay,” Rupp said.