Death of country singer puts spotlight back on bounty hunters

Randy Howard was killed in a shootout with a bounty hunter at his home in Lynchburg, Tenn., last week.

Randy Howard was killed in a shootout with a bounty hunter at his home in Lynchburg, Tenn., last week.

The death of country singer Randy Howard, gunned down a week ago in his Tennessee home by a bounty hunter, played out like a grim song blaring from a honky-tonk juke box.

Wanted for jumping bail on a DUI charge, Howard was in his Lynchburg cabin when Jackie Shell, a bounty hunter, came looking for him. He was killed in an ensuing shootout. 

Shell, who says Howard shot first, has not been charged in the case, the latest to shine a spotlight on a part of law enforcement that often operates on its fringes. 

But although accusations of excessive force, inadequate training, and low requirements for getting work have long dogged bounty hunters, or bail enforcement agents, few expect any new major regulations on the industry.

“This [system] saves the states money,” Robert McCrie, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told “Bounty hunters can do things that law enforcement is just unable to do.”

“We are not the renegades that TV shows make us out to be.”

- Chuck Jordan, President of the National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents

Critics say the hodge-podge of laws regulating bounty hunters makes cases like Howard's inevitable.

Howard, a hard-partying, gun-toting country caricature whose debut single in 1983, “All-American Redneck,” was banned by some stations for its embrace of "smoking grass and kicking ass," may have drawn first, but also may have had a right to.

While Shell had an arrest warrant, Howard was allowed under state law to defend himself. The shootout has led some to ask whether Shell should have called for police instead of exchanging gunfire.

“Our stance is that we have to defend ourselves,” Chuck Jordan, president of the National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents told “But many of us operate within the law.

“We are not the renegades that TV shows make us out to be,” he said.

Nearly half the states in the U.S. have no law enforcement requirements to become a bail enforcement agent. And only 11 states, including California, Arizona, Connecticut, and Iowa, require bounty hunters to be licensed.

Some states, like Florida, only require that prospective bounty hunters be at least 18, submit to a background check and pass a state administered written exam. South Carolina requires the same, plus a scant 20 hours of training.

In May, a law was passed in the state of Minnesota that forbids bail bondsmen from using certain-colored uniforms or vehicles with emblems that the public might mistake for law enforcement. California, Connecticut, Georgia and West Virginia already have similar laws in place.

Jordan said while many states have some sort of regulation in place, the regulations in some states could use reform.

“We would like it consistent across the board,” he said. “A federal regulation could be a good solution.”

But McCrie doubts there will be any national reform, saying outside of a few cases that make the headlines every now and then, the system draws little attention.

“It’s unlikely that we would see any sort of federal regulation,” he said. “There’s just not much of a call for it.”

Stew Peters, a senior investigator for U.S. Fugitive Recovery and Extradition in Minnesota, which was affected by the recent ruling there, said any governance from the federal level would be overreach - and that some state regulations that require schooling or college credits may be too much of a regulation.

“I think it’s a bit ridiculous to need a degree,” Peters said. “You learn to be a cop by being a cop and you don’t learn to be a bounty hunter in a classroom, either."

The bounty hunter added that there should be more initial field training as a requirement.

Warrant service is easily the most dangerous part of law enforcement,” Peters said. “Losing is not an option in our line of work. All of us are determined to go home to our families at night.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych