In most countries, only government law enforcement officers have authority to go after and arrest fugitives from justice. But in the United States, bounty hunters (also called “fugitive recovery agents”)—private citizens who make it their profession to track down and capture bail jumpers—have been around for a long time. Laws that govern bounty hunting differ by jurisdiction, but almost all states allow fugitive recovery agents to operate in some capacity within their borders.
Most people who get arrested want to get out of jail as soon as possible. But bail can be really expensive—even for a relatively minor crime it can be $10,000 or more. That’s where bail bondsmen (sometimes called “bail agents”) come in: For people who don’t have the resources to post bail themselves, contracting with a bondsman might be the only option to get out of custody.
Bondsmen are in the business of depositing bail for those accused of committing crimes in exchange for a fee. The fee is ordinarily a percentage of the bail amount—typically, around 10%. For example, suppose a defendant’s bail is $100,000. In such a case, the bondsman would likely charge a $10,000 nonrefundable fee to post the bail. (Learn more about the options for posting bail.)
How Bounty Hunters Get Involved
When defendants go to court like they’re supposed to, the court refunds bail, and everyone’s happy. But that’s not always what happens. If a defendant skips town while out on bail, the bondsman stands to lose a lot of money because the court can keep the bail money. To prevent the loss, bondsmen often hire bounty hunters to retrieve fugitive defendants. The bounty hunter typically gets a percentage of the bail amount for coming back with the fugitive.
The Legalities of Bounty Hunting
Each state gets to decide whether to allow bounty hunting within its borders and how to regulate the practice. While most states do permit bounty hunting, the rules that bounty hunters must abide by vary greatly by jurisdiction. There are states, like Idaho, that allow but have no laws addressing bounty hunting. In these states, anyone can be a bounty hunter and there aren’t any specific procedures bounty hunters must follow when making an arrest. In other jurisdictions, such as California, fugitive recovery agents must be licensed and adhere to certain rules when pursuing and detaining a suspect.
Common requirements for becoming a fugitive recovery agent (in states that have such requirements) include:
being at least 18 years old
not having a felony criminal record, and
completion of training and education courses.
Additionally, state laws often dictate the procedures that bounty hunter must follow while operating within the state. For instance, some states require bounty hunters to carry paperwork that proves the bondsman gave authority to arrest the bail jumper. And there are states that obligate bounty hunters to contact local law enforcement before actually nabbing a suspect. Many states also have rules that apply only to out-of-state bounty hunters.
Bounty hunters who don’t heed state laws typically face criminal penalties, which might include jail time and fines.