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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

Keeping the Peace

Of the approximately 24,000 bail bond arrests last year, there were few incidents. This is due to several factors. First of all, unlike police officers, bounty hunters "stalk"-or track their targets. It may take weeks and months before they find them, but during this time the bounty has the opportunity to build a "profile." In short, he gets to know his fugitives and discovers their proclivity for violence, weapons, drugs, etc. Unlike a police officer making an arrest in a crowded bar or during a domestic dispute, the bounty hunter has the luxury of time and planning on his side.

"A cop often has to make an arrest," says Burton. "On the other hand, we can conduct surveillance, build a plan and arrange for backup. We can wait for the guy to be alone, wait for his friends to leave. Remember this isn't a job where you get off at six o'clock. In this business, it's no body ... no booty."

What are the most dangerous types of arrest? There are activ­ities that can place you into harm's way if you're not thinking straight. For instance, street gangs and bikers will come to the aid of a member in a heartbeat. It would be crazy, for example, for a bounty hunter to attempt a pickup by waltzing into their den and arresting one of them in front of their peers.

"When arresting a person like a Hell's Angel, or a Crip or Blood, you want to isolate him," Burton explains. "Wait until 2 o'clock in the morning, or plan to get him while he's in the bathroom. It's just common sense."

One secret to success is minimizing violence. Like police officers, bounty hunters must avoid the use of excessive force. No matter how justified he may feel, illegal or unethi­cal actions can lead to big problems for today's free-lance fugitive hunter. Imagine taking an injured bail jumper to the local lock-up and being turned away and redirected to the hospital. A bad situation gets worse and there's always a lawyer waiting in the shadows with a lawsuit for battery, assault or unlawful deprivation of freedom. Luckily, the "cowboys" in the business don't stay around long.

Strictly Business

As the chief instructor of the National Institute of Bail Enforcement's training program, Burton spends considerable time teaching the business aspects of setting up a successful bounty hunting practice. When it comes to hiring backups, he still can't believe some operators pay their assistants 5O per­cent of what they make.

"I say this is nonsense. You're a businessman and the per­son you're hiring is an employee. By giving him 5O percent and using him only as a backup, you overlook all the time you've spent creating the job, working the case and finding the bad guy," he says. "Unless a guy is a partner, deal with assistants on a flat-fee basis. That's my advice."

The training program provided by Burton focuses on the techniques of finding a fugitive. Some of the topics covered include: phone skills, marketing your services, fees, legal considerations, advertising and cross border operations.

Completion of the training program is one popular avenue of admission into the National Association of Bail Enforce­ment Agents. Burton says networking with other practitioners is crucial to the success of a bounty hunter. In a society with highly mobile criminals, they need to have contacts that can assist them with a pickup-maybe deliver a prisoner or provide information. Free-lancers who lack these far-reaching contacts are known in the trade as "county bounty hunters."

An example of effective networking comes readily to mind. The case involved Burton finding a rock 'n roll groupie in a Seattle motel. Burton was living in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the time. He heard about this character who bragged to his friends that nobody could ever find him. He'd skipped out on a $50,000 bond and was wanted for drug trafficking.

Burton took the challenge, and after some investigation, learned the fugitive loved the Rolling Stones and was seen at the band's concerts all over the West.

Burton didn't waste any time get­ting the band's future concert sched­ule and noted they were heading to the Seattle area. He then managed to get a phone number for the fugitive's girlfriend and it led to a motel. Bur­ton jumped on the telephone and called a retired FBI agent who was working as a bounty hunter. The ex­-agent, in turn, grabbed a couple of deputies (the fugitive was in NCIC), and the party went to the suspect's room. He answered the door, and the rest as they say, is history. "I chore­ographed all this from my living room," Burton says. "It paid nicely." 

Overcoming the Hurdles

But like any business, there are failures too. Take, for example, Alan Schmidt. After a six-month search, the California bounty hunter finally tracked down a Santa Cruz County child molester and pornog­rapher, who was out on a warrant totaling $1 million. Schmidt found

the man in Carson City, Nev.; bringing him in should have been a piece of cake. Schmidt was about to make the arrest-and take home $1000,000-when the fugitive was featured on "America's Most Wanted." He decided to turn himself in before the bounty hunter could make his move.

Bounty hunting has changed a lot since the days of Wyatt Earp and John Wesley Hardin. In the Old West, the fugitive would be tracked to his hideout. More times than not, there would be gunfire. The idea was to get your man dead or alive; frontier justice didn't spend much time split­ting the fine hairs. Today, the mission is to bring the fugitive into custody so the bail bondsman won't have to pay the court.

But like any free-lance job, bounty hunting is not exactly a walk in the park. The hours can be long-sometimes extremely long-and there is no over­time pay. You need to learn how to run a business and how to negotiate. You need to develop a business-and this is a business where reputation is everything.

In short, there's serious competition out there. Former police officers from the public sector may find such con­cepts foreign. Sure, you're familiar with competition, but this isn't like taking the sergeant's exam where it's more or less a level play­ing field. The bounty busi­ness takes a change of mind. Remember, you get paid for results and results only. In this line of work, good intentions and effort basically mean zilch.

And if this isn't enough, you need to learn how to collect from bonds agents. How do you manage overdue accounts? Can you han­dle the on again, off ag­ain nature of the work and the invariably fluc­tuating income?

Former officers also should do some soul searching. Do you really want another career of chasing bad guys-and the stress it entails?

For those who say "yes," the job can reap many rewards. The bounty is typically 10 to 20 percent of out­standing bonds. And if today's bounty hunter has a choice, he'd much rather go after a repeat offender than a first ti­mer. Veterans, it seems, are more likely to yield to the inevitable. They rarely offer resistance. In fact, today's bounty hunters meet with resistance less than 10 percent of the time.

Bounty hunters are alive and well as we approach the close of the century. After all, they fill the cracks through which many criminals slip. And as any officer knows, the size of those cracks seems to grow with each shift.

Cole Morris is a free-lance writer based in Glendale, Ariz.

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