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.[PAGEBREAK]
Powers Beyond the Law
The authority of a modern-day bounty hunter is immense. In capturing bail-jumpers, they have more authority than any law enforcement officer in the nation. They can enter a house without a warrant, or arrest a bail-jumper in any state and return him to coul1 without the formalities of extradition. Some might say the Constitution has been suspended for them.
The authority of the bounty hunter comes from an old Supreme Court decision. Argued in 1873, Taylor v. Taintor defined the common law clout of the bonds-agent: "When bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their dominion is a continuance of the original imprisonment. When ever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up to their discharge; if it cannot he done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him to another state may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. None is needed."
Established now as the law of the land for more than a century, the powers of arrest and pursuit granted to bail bonds-agents and their designated bounty hunters, has neither been modified nor canceled by the Supreme court.
Targeting the Suspect
The average target of today's bounty hunter is a 27year-old male with drug charges. This doesn't mean, however, that they don't see a little bit of everything in the business. In a recent incident, bounty hunters went looking for a "skip" with $35,000 in outstanding warrants. They stumbled across a major credit card and check fraud operation. Indeed, chasing fugitives can mean anything from picking up a local dope peddler at the comer bar to bringing back a child molester who thought he was safe in the Dominican Republic. There's a lot of business out there.
Take, for example, California's Dennis Badong. He specializes in skips who flee to Asia. One of his greatest projects involved a Nevada doper who thought he was untouchable in his hideout on Luzon in the Philippines. Badong and his brother burst the druggie's bubble when they went in at 2 a.m. with guns ready. They got their man and the fee of $5,000 plus expenses.
In business, time is money. And make no mistake, this is a business. Bob Burton likes to be creative because it saves time. Once he sent a woman in Detroit a letter stating she'd been given presidential amnesty for her crimes. With the letter was a round-trip airline ticket to New Orleans. She bought the story and was arrested at the airport. "I made $8,000 and didn't have to leave my living room," he says.
Building Working Relationships
When it comes to working relationships with police agencies, bounty hunters seem to get along best with officers on fugitive details-there is, after all, a common mission and common interests.
Some say that bounty hunters often have better resources and information than police for chasing down skippers. But sometimes there are problems. According to Burton, occasionally you'll run into an "attitude enforcement officer" who wants to get involved more than is required. He or she will attempt to disrupt the bounty hunter's efforts, and even look for reasons to arrest the hunter. Fortunately, these types are few and far between.
But with all this said, there's a big difference between law enforcement officers and private-sector bounty hunters. In fact, some might say the only things they have in common are handcuffs 'and the jail they book their prisoners in.
"Some say we are to law enforcement what Federal Express is to the post office," Burton says with a smile.
Essentially, bounty hunters have a private contractual right of arrest that is based on the bail-bond contract. It has nothing to do with warrants. The fact of the matter is, the defendant, in taking a bail bond, agrees to being arrested by the bondsman or the bounty hunter. He also waives his rights for extradition and domicile entry.[PAGEBREAK]
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.
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.