How Bounty Hunting Works


In the Wild West, when outlaws like Jesse James and Butch Cassidy roamed the land, local sheriffs didn't have the resources to track them down alone. So they put up "Wanted" posters offering huge rewards for their capture (Jesse James was worth $5,000 -- big, big money at the time). Bounty hunters answered the call, tracking the bad guys relentlessly for a piece of the reward money. They did anything it took to bring in the outlaws, "dead or alive."

Today, the stereotype of the rogue bounty hunter remains, even though most modern bounty hunters are trained and licensed professionals. The Wild West free-for-all has been transformed into a real business and an integral part of the American justice system.

In this article, we'll find out how bounty hunting works, learn the history of the profession and follow Bob Burton, one of the country's top bounty hunters, on the search for a fugitive.

When you watch a news story that involves an arrest, you may hear something like, "Bail was set at $100,000." Bail money is set to ensure that the person who is charged with the crime shows up in court. The more serious the crime, the higher the bail amount. For the most dangerous criminals, no bail is set at all -- they must remain in police custody.

Not everyone who is accused of a crime can afford bail money, which can run into the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars. In those cases, a bail bondsman will step in and put up a bail bond -- sort of like a loan -- in return for a percentage (usually 10 percent) of the total bail. The bail bondsman will then secure a bail bond from an insurance company. The bail bond acts as insurance guaranteeing that the accused will show up for his or her scheduled court appearance. But if the accused decides to skip town and miss the court appearance (which about 20 percent do), the bail bond must be paid -- and it's the bondsman who must pay it. (For this reason, bondsmen usually require collateral from the accused, such as property or a car title.)

Because bondsmen are liable for the bail bond amount, and the police can't always find their man (or woman), many bondsmen hire a professional bounty hunter -- or bail enforcement agent, as they prefer to be called -- to track down "skips." More than one bounty hunter may be assigned to the same case, but professional agents tend to shy away from cases with too much competition.

In return for their services, bounty hunters typically receive anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of the total bail bond. An experienced bounty hunter who works 80 to 150 cases a year can earn anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 annually. But the hours are long and grueling -- sometimes 80 to 100 hours a week, and the work is tough. "As bounty hunters, we're driving around bad neighborhoods, talking to stupid people, drinking cold coffee, and looking for bad guys -- and they talk about the glory of it all," says Bob Burton, director of The National Enforcement Agency. The real reward, he says, is the adrenaline rush that comes from making an arrest. Burton refers to it as "adrenadollars" -- "For every buck we make arresting someone, we make $1,000 in adrenadollars."

By their own accounts, bounty hunters are more effective than the police. According to the National Association of Bail Enforcement Agents, they nab nearly 90 percent of all bail jumpers.

Is Bounty Hunting Legal?

Bail bond recovery agent badge
Bail bond recovery agent badge

Yes, bounty hunting is legal, although state laws vary with regard to the rights of bounty hunters. In general, they have greater authority to arrest than even the local police. "When the defendant signs the bail bond contract, they do something very important. They waive their constitutional rights," says Burton. "They agree that they can be arrested by the bail bond agent. And they waive extradition, allowing bondsmen to take them to any state."

All the bounty hunter needs to make an arrest is a copy of the "bail piece" (the paperwork indicating that the person is a fugitive) and, in some states, a certified copy of the bond. He or she doesn't need a warrant, can enter private property unannounced and doesn't have to read a fugitive his or her Miranda rights before making the arrest. But there are rules and regulations to the job. The bail bond contract gives bounty hunters the right to enter the home of a fugitive, but only after establishing without a doubt that the person lives there. They cannot enter the homes of friends or family members to look for the fugitive.

Some states require that bounty hunters be licensed; other states require that bounty hunters register with them. Only a handful of states -- Kentucky, Illinois and Oregon -- prohibit bounty hunters entirely from making bail arrests. In these states, bounty hunters need to have a court order. Then, the judge will usually order the local police to arrest the fugitive, and the bounty hunter can request that the prisoner be remanded into his or her custody.

The one thing a bounty hunter can never do is take the hunt outside of the United States. Bounty hunters can be arrested -- even shot -- if they stray across international borders. (See the sidebar in the next section for more on this).

The Bounty Hunt

Criminals don't run from the law with the aim of getting caught. Because they don't hide in plain sight, bounty hunters have to be resourceful. They must research their subjects thoroughly before making any moves. Usually they start by searching through databases of addresses, phone numbers, license plate numbers and Social Security numbers to find the fugitive's last whereabouts.

Once they hit the streets, bounty hunters stake out the fugitive's address or frequent haunts. They may search through the person's mail, trace telephone calls or talk to people in the area who might have seen him or her. Some bounty hunters use spy gadgets like exit-sign video cameras and night vision goggles to track down skips.

Many bounty hunters carry guns, mace or other weapons. But by far the most valuable weapon a bounty hunter can possess is the element of surprise. Often, that means showing up at a fugitive's door in the middle of the night or posing as a UPS delivery person or meter reader to gain access to the person's residence.

Pursuing criminals can be a dangerous business, and the threat always hangs heavy in the mind of a bounty hunter. "It's very difficult for a wife to say to her husband when he's walking out the door at midnight with a shotgun, 'Have a nice day at the office.' There's the worry factor," says Burton.

But violence doesn't usually play into the equation -- first, because the most violent criminals don't get out on bail; and second, because most don't put up a fight. Less than 3 to 4 percent of the people Burton goes after resist arrest, and most of them do nothing more than try to run or squirm away.

Unless their life is in jeopardy, true bounty hunters will never kill a fugitive. The reason is part integrity and part finances -- they need to "bring 'em back alive" to earn their share of the bail money. Bounty hunters can't even "rough up" fugitives. Jails won't accept them with broken bones or large bruises because of the legal liability.

A Day in the Life of a Bounty Hunter

Bob Burton, bounty hunter
Bob Burton, bounty hunter
Photo courtesy Bob Burton

Bob Burton is one of the most respected bounty hunters in the country. He's been in the business for 25 years, during which time he has brought thousands of bail jumpers to justice. Last year alone, his agents made 20,000 arrests.

A typical bounty hunt for Burton begins with a call from a bail bondsman. He then goes to the bondsman's office and gets a power of attorney, which gives him the authority to arrest the suspect on behalf of the bail bondsman. Burton also collects personal information on the accused, such as Social Security number, date of birth and car make and model.

"Then we start looking for the Judas," Burton explains. The Judas is that one person who has been scorned by the accused and is now willing to reveal the skip's whereabouts. The Judas can be a drug dealer, an ex-girlfriend, the person who put up the bail collateral and who now feels betrayed or even the person's mother or father.

Like any effective predator, Burton must know his prey. He finds out where the skip likes to hang out, traces the skip's phone calls and pores through his or her credit card statements. Sometimes, Burton tips bouncers or motel clerks anywhere from $20 to $300 to call him when the fugitive shows up.

Burton says he has the advantage over the police because he doesn't approach his intended catch wearing a police uniform and badge. "The fugitive drops his guard because he's not looking for the bounty hunter -- the guy sitting next to him at the bar quietly calling for backup," he says.

Staking out a fugitive can be an excruciatingly long process. Burton and his team can wait for hours or even days at a location. Once he has found his man or woman, the arrest can go in one of several different ways. "When we're going to pick up a 25-year-old girl who has bounced a check, we don't go into raid mode. We say, 'Look honey, come with us. We don't want to put handcuffs on you,'" says Burton.

On the other end of the extreme are the more hardened criminals who resist arrest. Sometimes, Burton and his team try to distract the fugitive, for example by jamming his car door lock with paper so he has to fumble around for a few minutes. In other cases, they have to break down a door and take the person into custody.

Then Burton cuffs the suspect, puts him or her in the back seat and drives the skip to a jail in the county in which he or she was originally arrested. Burton has driven fugitives thousands of miles across the country.

History of Bounty Hunting

Bounty hunting originated in England hundreds of years ago. Back in the 13th century, bail was a person, not an amount of money. An individual was designated custodian of the accused, and if the accused did not return to face his penalty, the custodian could be hanged in his place.

During colonial times, America relied upon the bail system set up by the government of England. In 1679, the British Parliament passed the Habeas Corpus Act, which for the first time guaranteed that an accused person could be released from prison on monetary bail. It stated:

... within two days after the party shall be brought before them, the said lord chancellor or lord keeper ... shall discharge the said prisoner from his imprisonment, taking his or their recognizance, with one or more surety or sureties, in any sum according to their discretions, having regard to the quality of the prisoner and nature of the offense, for his or their appearance in the court of the King's bench the term following ...

This right was later written into the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the setting of excessive bail, and the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established the U.S. judicial court system, defined the terms for bailable offenses.

Federal bail law remained unchanged until the Bail Reform Act of 1966, which allowed the prisoner to be released with as little bail as possible to secure his or her return for trial (although the 1984 Bail Reform Act allowed the courts to hold accused persons without bail if they were deemed too dangerous for release). For more information on bail, see How Bail Works.

The bounty hunter was given broad authority starting in 1873 with the U.S. Supreme Court case, Taylor v. Taintor. The case gave bounty hunters the authority to act as agents of bail bondsmen. Bounty hunters on the trail of a bail jumper could "pursue him into another state" and, if necessary, "break and enter his house for that purpose." Today, states have their own restrictions when it comes to bounty hunting, but most states give bounty hunters the freedom to pursue and arrest bail jumpers within and across their borders.

For more information on bounty hunting and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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