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Freelancing for Fugitives

Bounty hunting can be a lucrative career for former law enforcement officers with business sense and street smarts.

March 01, 1996  |  by Cole Morris

The rain drizzles across the wind­shield of the Ford van. Inside sits a burly man in his mid 40s. He's wearing jeans, boots and a plaid shirt. He's surrounded by stale smoke and fast food wrappers. On the seat next to him there is a collection of bail bond agree­ments, warrants, photos and files with case numbers. There's also a stun gun and .357 magnum-just in case. Watching the house down the street, he notices the red Chevy as it pulls into the driveway.

The dim light of a streetlamp tells him this is his man. Yep, the fugitive has finally come home to roost. Lighting another cigar, he settles deeper into the Ford's worn upholstery. He'll wait until the guy hits the sack and the lights in the house go dark.

Then, and only then, will it be time to wrap this case up. He'll make the arrest and collect the bounty.

Coming of Age

If you think bounty hunters are mythical characters of the Wild West or figments of the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters, you'd better think again. The bounty hunter is alive and well in contemporary America. Last year these pri­vate sector entrepreneurs made approximately 24,000 appre­hensions. While taking bad guys off the street, they also hap­pened to make quite a bit of money. The average fee for bringing in a bad guy runs between $400 and $600. Some par­ticularly high-profile cases can net $10,000 to $87,000 for an arrest. Anyway you slice it, bounty hunting is a big business.

When it comes to bounty hunters (they are also known as bail enforcement agents), Bob Burton is the man to talk to. In the business for more than 30 years, he is president of the 1,000-member National Association of Bail Enforcement Agents and a training operation known as the National Institute of Bail Enforcement. He's written two books on the subject of bringing in criminals, authored countless articles, produced a video and served as a technical advisor in the filming of the Robert DeNiro film, "Midnight Run." His career in this decid­edly unusual line of work began in Brooklyn, N.Y., back in 1959. As a U.S. Marine stationed at the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, two individuals hired him to provide his '58 Ford Fairlane for use in an arrest. They wanted a car with out-of-state plates, and the operation went smoothly. After a stint as an insurance agent, he went into the business full-time in 1981.

"Bail enforcement agents are the bonding indus­try's personal 9-1-1," says Burton. "In I 994, the bonding industry got at least 87 percent of its fugi­tives. Compare this with the figures of any city's fugitive detail and our performance is pretty good."

Burton admits that free-lance bounty hunters don't have the heavy caseloads of their sworn counterparts. Nonetheless, many free-lancers may work 10 to 20 cases at a time. Such a work load naturally means more than a 40-hour week. But this is a business, and for every apprehension they make, there's money to be made. And as small businessmen or con­tractors, the harder and smarter they work, the better their bottom lines.

"Income can vary to the highs of 80K to maybe 3 to 6K per year for part-time work," says Burton. The average income is a little under $40,000.

Not too surprisingly, many former law enforcement offi­cers are attracted to this line of work. The average bounty hunter is a 44-year-old man with a law enforcement back­ground. The best suited cops for the business, generally speaking, are the fugitive-detail types. However, according to Burton, these folks are often "burned out" after a career of extremely pressurized law enforcement work.

Nonetheless, the ranks of today's bounty hunters are filled with former U.S. Marshals, DEA personnel, sheriff's deputies and a considerable number of NYPD veterans.

"Many officers from the uniformed divisions are too insti­tutionalized' for this game," he adds. "After years in a patrol car, many simply can't operate effectively without depart­mental guidelines or court decisions."

A Historical Perspective

To understand bounty hunters, one must first understand bail. The bail system, as we know it today, has its roots deep in English history, well before the Norman Conquest in I 066. It developed in a period when there were few jails or prisons. It seems the only places to detain a person awaiting trial were the many dungeons found in castles scattered around the countryside.

Magistrates often called upon respected noblemen to serve as jailers and entrusted them to produce the defendant for trial. Eventually, the numbers of noblemen declined and volunteers were sought to supervise prisoners. However, in order to ensure defendants appeared at trial, custodians were required to sign a bond.

Known as private sureties, private jailers would forfeit to the king a specified amount of money or property if they failed to live up to their obligation to produce the pris­oner for trial. Moving to the New World, bail shifted from a confinement philosophy to one of freedom under financial control.

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