The Slate Gist

Bounty Hunters

Last month, five armed bounty hunters forced their way into a Phoenix home, shooting and killing two occupants. In another recent case, Kansas City, Mo., bounty hunters broke into the wrong home and put three bullets in an innocent man. These stories portray bounty hunters as thugs who are beyond the law. What is a bounty hunter? What legal powers do bounty hunters have? Whence do they derive those powers?

Bounty hunters work for bail-bondsmen. They are dispatched to capture defendants in criminal cases who have skipped bail posted by bail-bondsmen. About 40 percent of all criminal defendants are released on bail, a cash deposit that is forfeited to the court if the defendant fails to appear before the judge as promised. Defendants who can’t afford bail often hire the services of a private bail-bond agency to front the cash. The bondsman’s fee is usually 10 percent of the bail, with defendants putting up collateral for the remainder.

Last year, more than 33,000 defendants posted bail and then skipped their court date. Most bail-jumpers face charges on drug-related crimes, violent offenses, or theft. The most popular bail-jumper destinations are warm-weather spots (Southern California and south Florida) and big cities (Chicago and New York City). Most skips stay within the United States–avoiding passport-control agents, who are trained to spot them.

In most states, a bondsman must return the skip within a year of the missed court date to recover his deposit. Few bail-bondsmen keep bounty hunters on the payroll for liability reasons, choosing instead to pay the bounty hunters the standard fee of 10 percent of the bond. Bounty hunters (who prefer to call themselves “recovery agents”) are paid only after the skip is returned to custody and the bail-bondsman gets his deposit back from the court. In most states bounty hunters are unregulated. (Bail-bondsmen, on the other hand, are licensed and regulated by all states, and in many jurisdictions must carry liability and general operating insurance.)

T he powers of bounty hunters are immense. When arresting a skip, bounty hunters need not read them their Miranda rights. They do not need a warrant to search the residence of a skip, even a hotel room. Nor are they required to announce themselves before entering private property, as police officers must. Evidence obtained illegally by bounty hunters can be submitted in court. Like police officers, bounty hunters are authorized to use “all reasonable force” to apprehend skips. This means they can shoot to kill if shot at. Also, they can transport skips across state lines without enduring extradition proceedings. (Bounty hunter cliché: Extradition proceedings take place in the trunk of a car.)

Bounty hunters derive their powers from the 1872 Supreme Court case Taylor vs. Taintor. In the eyes of the law, a defendant voluntarily places himself in the custody of the bail-bondsman and, by extension, the bounty hunter, when he signs the bail contract. The court decided that bondsmen and bounty hunters are proxies for the state, and therefore deserve police powers when taking “custody” of the accused. However, the usual constitutional protections enjoyed by suspects don’t apply to skips pursued by bounty hunters because, the court decided, the bounty hunters work for the bondsmen, not the government. (Private debt collectors–”repo men”–face more legal fetters than bounty hunters. They can’t use violence or search private property without the owners’ consent. And unlike bounty hunters, they can be arrested for trespassing on private property.)

Bounty hunters’ privileges are a vestige of British common law. Since the Middle Ages, courts have appointed custodians for defendants awaiting trial. Usually, the custodian was the defendant’s friend. In the 13th century, courts commonly required custodians to serve defendants’ punishments in their stead when their wards skipped, even if this meant standing in for a hanging.

Bounty hunters are more efficient at returning criminals than police are. The National Association of Bail Enforcement Agents says that 88 percent of all bail jumpers are returned to authorities by bounty hunters. Law enforcement officers return 10 percent of skips, but catch most of them at routine traffic stops and at border crossings. Only 2 percent of skips remain at large. Criminal justice experts credit bounty hunters’ success rates to two things: They face less red tape than do police and, unlike police, bounty hunters have an economic incentive to get their men.

Last year, U.S. News & World Report proclaimed bounty hunting one of the hottest job tracks in its “Best Jobs for the Future” issue. No persuasive evidence substantiates this claim. According to the NABEA, there are only 200 to 300 full-time bounty hunters in the United States, and they earn an average income of about $36,000. More than 1,700 people bounty hunt part time. Most of them are former or off-duty cops or private investigators.

Few bounty hunter training programs exist–the most frequently attended programs are 20-hour courses that cover only basic legal constraints. Several states have bills pending that would require bounty hunters to register with police, take more extensive training courses, and obey procedural constraints that apply to police, such as announcing themselves before entering a private home.

Instances of bounty hunters abusing their power abound. In the Phoenix case, the bounty hunters claimed that they were pursuing a skip but accidentally raided the wrong address. The authorities believe that the bounty hunters used their profession as a cover for armed robbery. Increasingly, civil courts hold bounty hunters liable for their mistakes. Last year, one court awarded $1.2 million to a New York woman who was mistakenly kidnapped and transported to Alabama by bounty hunters.