Sometimes, people arrested for crimes are set free until their scheduled trial date. Usually, they're required to give the court money as security for returning to court for trial: it's called bail. If they can't afford the bail, they can contact a bail bonds agent who agrees to pay the bail.
When someone skips or jumps bail and doesn't show up for court, the agent loses that money - unless the person is caught and brought back for trial.
Bounty hunters, or bail enforcement agents, chase after and track down people who jump bail. They're hired to catch the skippers and bring them back. Why? Because police departments are busy and don't have the time or resources to track after everyone who jumps bail.
Once bail skippers are caught and taken to court, the bondsmen usually are released from their bond obligations - they get their money back.
Bounty hunters don't work for free. Usually, they're paid a percentage of the amount of the bail bond written for the skipper. It's typically between 10 and 20 percent, sometimes more.
TV shows and movies often make the bounty hunting business look glamorous or exciting. The truth is, it's a dangerous job with long days of work. After all, someone willing to run from the courts and police will likely do anything to keep from being taken back. And it may take weeks to track down a skipper.
Bounty hunting is controlled almost entirely by the laws of the state where the bounty hunter works. The laws may be very different from state to state. For example:
- In some states, like Ohio, bounty hunters must have specialized classroom training and be licensed
- In states like Michigan, there are no training or licensing requirements
- A bounty hunter licensed in one state generally doesn't have legal authority to make an arrest in another state that requires a license unless the laws in the second state recognize out-of-state licenses. Ohio is a good example
- States like Kentucky and Florida don't allow bounty hunting within state lines
- In states like Louisiana, bounty hunters have to wear clothing identifying themselves as bounty hunters when making an arrest in someone's home
- In most states with licensing requirements, bounty hunters also have to carry insurance
A bounty hunter has a lot of leeway when it comes to making arrests. He may go into a bail-skipper's home - without a search or arrest warrant - if there's a good reason to believe the skipper is in the home. He can't, however, enter someone else's home unless there's a warrant or the owner's permission to enter.
This isn't like a citizen's arrest where you actually call the police and let them make an arrest. Bounty hunters have full arrest powers. They can handcuff and detain the person they're chasing.
The laws in each state specify exactly what bounty hunters can and can't do, but two limitations generally apply no matter where the bounty hunter is:
- They can't carry firearms unless they have the proper licenses or permits of the state they're in. A valid permit in one state may not be valid in another
- The power to arrest applies only to the fugitive/bail skipper. Bounty hunters generally don't have legal authority to arrest anyone else
Bounty hunters often serve a valuable purpose by helping to make sure people who break the law - and perhaps threaten the public's safety - are brought to justice. For the most part, they're law abiding citizens who do a professional job.
Mistakes happen, though. Keep in mind, a bounty hunter can't use excessive force when trying to catch a bail-jumper. Also, a bounty hunter who arrests the wrong person faces a possible false arrest lawsuit. If you think you or a loved one was mistreated by a bounty hunter, you should file a complaint with your state's department of insurance.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do bounty hunters need training and licenses in our state?
- Can someone get into legal trouble for lying to a bounty hunter about the location of the person he's looking for?
- Can bounty hunters arrest someone in a foreign country?