A bounty hunter (sometimes called a bounty killer) is a person who captures fugitives and criminals for a monetary reward (bounty). The occupation, also known as bail enforcement agent, bail agent, recovery agent, bail recovery agent, or fugitive recovery agent, has historically existed in many parts of the world, however today it is found almost exclusively in the United States and the Philippines, its former commonwealth, as the practice is illegal under the laws of most other countries.
The Old West
In 1872, the Supreme Court ruled that bounty hunters were a part of the U.S. law enforcement system with a decision in Taylor v. Taintor:
When the bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their domain is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up to his discharge; and if it cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The seizure is not made by virtue of due process. None is needed. It is likened to the arrest by the Sheriff of an escaped prisoner.
In modern times, bounty hunters are known as Bail Enforcement Agents (bail bondsman) and carry out arrests mostly for those who have skipped bail. The term 'bounty hunting' is now not often used or liked by many in the profession due to its historical context.
Bounty hunters are sometimes misleadingly called "skiptracers", where skiptracing generally refers to the process of searching for an individual through less direct methods than active pursuit and apprehension, such as spies or debt collectors. While bounty hunters may be skiptracers as well, bounty hunting is a civil matter and does not always imply criminal conduct on the part of the individual being traced.
When undertaking arrest warrants, agents may wear bullet-resistant vests, badges and other clothing branded with "BAIL ENFORCEMENT AGENT", or similar titles. Many agents also use two-way radios to communicate with each other. Many agents arm themselves with firearms, or, sometimes, with less lethal weapons, such as tasers, batons, CS/pepper spray and pepper-spray projectiles.
In the United States, the National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents is the professional association representing this industry.
Most bounty hunters are employed by bail bondsmen: the bounty hunter is usually paid about 10% of the total bail amount, but this commission can vary on an individual, case-by-case basis; usually depending upon the difficulty level of the assignment and the approach used to exonerate the bail bond. If the fugitive eludes bail, the bondsman, not the bounty hunter, is responsible for 100% of the total bail amount. This is a way of ensuring clients arrive at trial. As of 2003, bounty hunters claimed to catch 31,500 bail jumpers per year, about 90% of people who jump bail.
Bounty hunters have varying levels of authority in their duties with regard to their targets depending on which states they operate in. Barring restrictions applicable state by state, a bounty hunter may enter the fugitive's private property without a warrant in order to execute a re-arrest. A bounty hunter cannot, however, enter the property of anyone other than the fugitive without a warrant or the owner's permission.
In some states, bounty hunters do not undergo any formal training, and are generally unlicensed, only requiring sanction from a bail bondsman to operate. In other states, however, they are held to varying standards of training and license. State legal requirements are often imposed on out-of-state bounty hunters, meaning a suspect could temporarily escape rearrest by entering a state in which the bail agent has limited or no jurisdiction.
In the United States legal system, the 1873 U.S. Supreme Court case Taylor v. Taintor, 16 Wall (83 U.S. 366, 21 L.Ed. 287), is cited as having established that the person into whose custody an accused is remanded as part of the accuser's bail has sweeping rights to that person. This may have been accurate at the time the decision was reached, the portion cited was obiter dictum and has no binding precedential value.
As of 2008, four states, Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin prohibited the practice, as they have abolished commercial bail bonds and banned the commercial bail bonds industry within their borders. As of 2012 Nebraska and Maine in addition to the aforementioned Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin prohibited surety bail bonds. Another three states, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, as well as the District of Columbia heavily restrict bounty hunting.
The State of Connecticut has a detailed licensing process which requires any person who wants to engage in the business as a bail enforcement agent (bounty hunter) to first obtain a professional license from the Commissioner of Public Safety; specifically detailing that "No person shall, as surety on a bond in a criminal proceeding or as an agent of such surety, engage in the business of taking or attempting to take into custody the principal on the bond who has failed to appear in court and for whom a re-arrest warrant or capias has been issued unless such person is licensed as a bail enforcement agent". Connecticut has strict standards which require Bail Enforcement Agents to pass an extensive background check and, while engaging in fugitive recovery operations, be uniformed, notify the local police barrack, wear a badge, and only carry licensed and approved firearms, including handguns and long guns which are permitted. Recently Connecticut State Police converted their Bail Enforcement Agent licensing unit to reflect the important role Bail Enforcement Agents play in the Connecticut criminal justice system; placing them in the newly defined Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
Several schools in Connecticut have obtained certification by the Connecticut State Police to pre-license Bail Enforcement Agents in a minimum of 20 hours of Criminal Justice training and a minimum of eight hours of firearms training. Some of the more advanced schools offer specialized training in the area of tactical firearms to prepare BEA's for conducting dangerous recovery operations.
In Florida, a bounty hunter must obtain a "limited surety agent" license from the Florida Department of Financial Services, Bureau of Agent and Agency Licensing, in order to legally apprehend bail fugitives.
Illinois abolished commercial bail, so it has no bail bondsmen.
Kentucky prohibits bounty hunting in any form. Only a peace officer may make an arrest on a warrant that is issued in NCIC. This is because the state does not have a system of bail bondsmen. Earlier in state history, it was allowed.
Louisiana requires bounty hunters to wear clothing identifying them as one.
As of 2012 Maine prohibited surety bail bonds.
As of 2012 Nebraska prohibited commercial bail bonds.
A Nevada bounty hunter is referred to as a bail enforcement agent or bail enforcement solicitor. It requires a minimum 20 hours of training, passing examinations and obtaining a bail enforcement agent license by the Nevada Division of Insurance within 9 months of employment as a bail agent. To acquire such license one must be at least 21 years old, a United States citizen, have a high school diploma or equivalent, undergo the extensive training and pass a state examination.
Oregon abolished commercial bail, so it does not have a system of bail bondsmen.
A Texas bounty hunter is required to be a peace officer, Level III (armed) security officer, or a private investigator.
The commercial bail bond industry is outlawed in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Statute § 969.12 provides that no surety can be compensated for serving as a surety, effectively eliminating the commercial bond market.
Pertinent laws outside the U.S.
Bounty hunters may run into serious legal problems if they try to apprehend fugitives outside the United States, where laws treat the re-arrest of any fugitive by private persons as kidnapping, or the bail agent may incur the punishments of some other serious crime if local and international laws are broken by them. While the United States government generally allows the activities of bounty hunters within the United States, the governments in other sovereign nations consider them a felony.
Bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman (star of the TV series Dog the Bounty Hunter) was arrested in Mexico after he apprehended the multi-millionaire rapist and fugitive Andrew Luster. Chapman was subsequently released and returned to the U.S. Chapman himself was later declared a fugitive by a Mexican prosecutor and was subsequently arrested in the United States to be extradited back to Mexico. Chapman has maintained that under Mexico's citizen arrest law, he and his crew acted under proper policy.
Daniel Kear of Fairfax, Virginia pursued and apprehended Sidney Jaffe at a residence in Canada and returned him to Florida to face trial. Kear was extradited to Canada in 1983, and convicted of kidnapping.
Several bounty hunters have been arrested for killing the fugitive or apprehending the wrong individuals, mistaking innocent people for fugitives.
Unlike police officers, they have no legal protections against injuries to non-fugitives and few legal protections against injuries to their targets.
In a Texas case, bounty hunters Richard James and his partner DG Pearson were arrested in 2001 for felony charges during an arrest. The charges were levied by the fugitive and his family, but were later dismissed against the hunters after the fugitive's wife shot a deputy sheriff in another arrest attempt of the fugitive by the county sheriff's department. The hunters sued the fugitive and family, winning the civil suit for malicious prosecution with a judgment amount of $1.5 million.
During the Rhodesian Bush War, cattle rustling reached epidemic proportions in the late 1970s. This was part of a twofold strategy of the guerrillas against the white minority government in Salisbury. First, it led to starvation in the Tribal Trust Lands; second, it negatively affected the economy of Rhodesia. Because the army and the British South Africa Police were overstretched on three fronts, mercenaries were hired to confront the rustlers. They were called "Range Detectives", and most of them were Vietnam veterans, some of them members of The Crippled Eagles. Payment was roughly seven Rhodesian dollars a day, and a 750 Rhodesian dollar bonus for each rustler caught.