OAKLAND (CBS SF / AP) — A lawsuit filed in a Bay Area courtroom on behalf of bail customers claims surety companies and agents in California conspire to keep premiums high.

Four public-interest groups filed the antitrust lawsuit Tuesday in Alameda County against more than 20 companies and agents, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The lawsuit alleges the defendants have worked since 2004 at least to discourage bail agents from offering discounts or rebates and retaliate against those who do not cooperate.

According to the lawsuit, customers paid maximum prices for bail bonds while seeking their own or someone else’s release from jail and then struggled to pay the debt.

The lawsuit asks a judge to prevent surety businesses, which underwrite bonds, from engaging in alleged “cartel” pricing practices and collecting assets on debt.

The Golden State Bail Association is among those named in the lawsuit. Its president, Greg Padilla, told the Times he had not seen the complaint and could not address the allegations.

Padilla said, however, that “we have fought for years to lower bail schedules, which would lower premiums” but that he and others who lobbied for that met resistance from the state Legislature.

The Times reported that calls to other bail agents and associations named in the lawsuit were not immediately returned Tuesday.

The lawsuit asks the judge to order the defendants to pay damages to alleged victims and correct all alleged misleading statements in print and online materials.

“What makes this case particularly important is that the product being fixed is not a consumer good but someone’s freedom,” said attorney Dean Harvey, who is lead counsel on the case. “It is about whether a presumptively innocent person is able to go to their job or not, take care of their children or not.”

The action comes amid uncertainty for the bail industry in California.

A state law signed last year would have ended cash bail for suspects awaiting trial, but it’s now on hold until voters decide a 2020 ballot referendum that would overturn it.

Under that law, which was to go into effect later this year, suspects would instead be held or freed based on the likelihood they’ll return to court and the degree of danger they pose to the public.

According to plaintiffs’ attorneys, work on the lawsuit began before the law was passed and it should go forward even if the cash bail system is eliminated because that would not help people who paid high premiums and would not stop the companies from continuing to collect on debts.

© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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