A bounty hunter
is a person who hunts down and captures fugitives from justice. Many people have only heard of bounty hunters in old yarns about the Wild West
or science fiction
stories, Star Wars
' Boba Fett
being one of the most famous examples, but few people realize that bounty hunters are still a part of the criminal justice
system today - in the United States
, for example, bounty hunters track down and capture more than 30,000 fugitives from justice every year.
Most bounty hunters today are hired by bail bondsmen to catch people who skip bail. For the bail bondsman, hiring a bounty hunter is usually the only way to recover the money he or she has riding on the accused person showing up on time for court. A few bail bondsman still hunt down fugitives themselves, but today most bail bondsmen are just businessmen or businesswomen (40 percent are female), who leave the tracking, hunting, and confronting to the professionals - the bounty hunters.
Historically bounty hunters have been only loosely regulated, or not regulated at all. An 1872 Supreme Court case, Taylor vs. Taintor, gave bounty hunters virtually limitless rights in capturing their quarry. The court declared,
"When bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their dominion is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up in their discharge, and if that 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 rearrest, by the sheriff, of an escaping prisoner."
Even today bounty hunters for the most part remain in a sort of legal gray zone, largely outside, and even above the law. They do not have to have a license in many states, and can generally enter the residence of a fugitive without a warrant, something even police may not do. This is allowed by placing a statement in the bail bond agreement in which the bonded person surrenders some of their legal rights if they flee. Bounty hunters also are generally legally allowed to make arrests thanks to laws allowing a licensed bail bond agent to "delegate" his arrest authority to other people in case of flight.
Usually such legalisms only apply in the state in question, but as fugitives are not always so cooperative as to remain in the state, bounty hunters often have to work on a national or even international scale. This means that bounty hunters are at times breaking the law and making technically illegal arrests, but because they are providing such a valuable service to society, they are rarely prosecuted so long as they bring the correct suspect back in good condition.
Efforts to regulate bounty hunters have increased in recent years, however, especially after some high profile cases in which bounty hunters killed the fugitive or captured the wrong person. In California, bounty hunters are now required to undergo a background check and two weeks of training. In Texas, they are forbidden to carry firearms. A few states have tried to ban bounty hunters altogether - Oregon, Kentucky, Illinois, and Florida have recently passed laws making it a felony offense to even say one is a bounty hunter or "bail enforcement agent," as some bounty hunters prefer to be called.
Bounty hunting is generally a thankless job, generally unrecognized by the public in real life despite the glamour attached to it in the movies, and it is a job that is becoming increasingly difficult to undertake, as restrictions increase and criminals become better armed. Nevertheless, as long as people keep trying to make a run for it, and the current system of bail bonding keeps providing a sizable monetary incentive for their recapture, there will always be a need for bounty hunters, and people ready to answer the call.