Bounty hunters are romantic figures in America's popular culture —practically an American archetype — portrayed by Hollywood stars like Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
But a recent incident in Greenville, Texas — in which two bounty hunters and a fugitive were killed in a shootout — shows the job isn't as glamorous as it looks in the movies.
While bounty hunters may appear to be the last true individualists — people who make their own rules — there are plenty of regulations they have to follow.
Bounty hunting goes back hundreds of years, to even before America was founded. Following older English law, the United States set up a bail system under which the accused could be released pending trial if they put up a judicially determined sum to be returned after the proceedings.
The accused can hire a bail bondsman to guarantee the amount. If the accused skips out, the bondsman may employ a bounty hunter to bring back the fugitive. The Supreme Court recognized bounty hunters as part of the criminal justice system in the 1873 case Taylor v. Taintor.
Today, although they are popularly called bounty hunters, they’re properly known as Bail Enforcement Agents - not to be confused with skip tracers. Bounty hunters track and capture criminal fugitives, while skip tracers tend to use more indirect means to find people, and often work on non-criminal cases.
While the job of tracking fugitives is not exactly 9-to-5 office work, it’s still a job, and can have many official requirements.
These vary greatly from state to state. For instance, some states are fairly unregulated, while four states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin — completely ban bounty hunting, along with the bail bonds industry itself.
At present, at least 22 states require licensing, and a number of states — even those without licensing, such as California — require formal training.
At least nine state have laws about what bounty hunters may wear.
For example, in Iowa, they can’t put on a uniform that gives the impression they’re a member of law enforcement. In Washington, they have to wear a shirt or vest with the words "Bail Bond Recovery Agent," "Bail Enforcement Agent" or "Bail Enforcement" while making an arrest.
At least 10 states have specific rules about when and how bounty hunters can enter private property.
In Arizona, a bounty hunter must get the consent of people inside a dwelling before they enter; in Virginia, they have to verbally notify people before they go in; in Missouri, they can enter private property for an arrest as long as they have probable cause.
Bounty hunters also have to let officials know what they’re doing — all states that have laws regarding bounty hunting require local law enforcement to be notified when they plan to arrest someone.
Of course, bounty hunters may need to leave their home state to capture fugitives. When this happens, they generally must follow local laws.
Bounty hunters tend to get their man — or woman — capturing more than 30,000 bail jumpers a year. But over the years there have been many cases where they didn’t follow the rules and were charged with crimes such as robbery, assault, kidnapping, impersonating an officer and murder.
And sometimes, they end up dead. Many of these regulation are designed for safety reasons, but as we’ve seen from the showdown in Texas, while it’s a business, it can be a dangerous one.