What is a bounty hunter? A bounty hunter, in simple terms, is a skilled professional who is hired by a bail bondsman to find and capture a fugitive in exchange for a monetary reward. The bounty hunter’s reward, which is considered the “bounty,” is typically a percentage of the bail. If a fugitive’s bail is $10,000, a bail bondsman may offer the bounty hunter between 10 and 20 percent of the bail amount, or $1,000 to $2,000, if the fugitive is successfully captured and brought to justice.
Bounty hunters today, in most states, are licensed and/or registered professionals who play an important role in the bail bond business and therefore in the nation’s criminal justice system. Their role is closely monitored by state insurance departments and other licensing authorities. Just four states (Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Oregon and Illinois) ban the practice of bounty hunting, although most states have clear statutes (even if they don’t license bounty hunters) that regulate the practice of these professionals in the state.
The History of Bounty Hunters
Gone are the posters of the most wanted, where the words “dead or alive” and “reward offered” were all that was needed to entice the man next door to embark on a hunt in hopes of securing a bounty on a fugitive’s head. Even as late as the early 20th century, a number of intrepid (and perhaps reckless) individuals chased down fugitives in hopes of reaping large rewards.
But bounty hunting’s history is even more colorful and extensive than the period of the famous bounty hunters like Pat Garret who, in 1881, was responsible for hunting down and killing Henry McCarty (a.k.a. Billy the Kid) in what many believe was a sensational ambush in Fort Sumner.
In fact, bounty hunting is believed to span as far back as the 13th century in England, when bail was not money, but an actual individual. During this time, a custodian was designated by the court to keep track of the accused and present him at trial. If the custodian failed to present the accused, the custodian would be forced to stand trial (and likely be hanged) in place of the accused.
A few hundred years later (1679), a structured bail system was formed, and the British Parliament created and passed the Habeas Corpus Act, allowing defendants to be released on monetary bail. The United States Constitution later adopted the Habeas Corpus Act of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibited the setting of excessive bail, and the Judiciary Act of 1789, which served to identify bailable offenses, but was also the foundation of what we now know as the U.S. judicial court system.
The U.S. Supreme Court case, Taylor v. Taintor, in 1873, gave bounty hunters the authority to act as agents of bail bondsmen. This court ruling also allowed bounty hunters a number of sweeping rights, such as the right to pursue fugitives in other states and, if necessary, break into a fugitive’s house, without a warrant, for the purpose of returning them on revoked bonds.
It wasn’t until the passage of the Bail Reform Act of 1966 that laws relating to bail really began to take shape. The Bail Reform Act of 1966 included verbiage that permitted prisoners to be released on as little bail as possible to ensure a return for trail. The subsequent Bail Reform Act of 1984 allowed courts to refuse bail to individuals who were deemed too dangerous for release.
Today’s Bounty Hunters
Because bounty hunting has become an accepted and respected profession in the United States, instead of asking, “What is a bounty hunter,” most who consider this line of work actually ask, “What role does a bounty hunter play in today’s judicial system?”
Bounty hunters today are, more often than not, trained, educated and highly skilled professionals who are called upon by bail bondsmen to return fugitives who have failed to adhere to the conditions of their bail. Bounty hunters spend much of their time investigating, researching, interviewing, and staking out locations so as to obtain the whereabouts of fugitives.
Exceling in this profession is often reserved for individuals with a distinct set of qualities, including resourcefulness, intelligence, and perseverance. Bounty hunters are often private investigators or retired or former police officers, and most of these professionals are educated in the field of criminal justice and/or law enforcement and have training in such areas as martial arts, self-defense, firearms, and weapons.
Training and education for bounty hunters often varies on state-specific requirements for licensure or registration. Although generally not required for state licensure, many bounty hunters pursue degree programs in criminal justice and similar programs so as to achieve a solid understanding and appreciation of everything from policy analysis and corrections to policing and criminology.