Bounty Hunter Billy Wells admits his profession has an image problem.
"There's a picture that pops up your mind when you say 'bounty hunter,'" he said. "You think of a thug."
It's an image that is not helped by regular — if infrequent — horror stories of bounty hunters' apparent abuses and mistakes, such as the killing of a Virginia man last month. Police say a bounty hunter with criminal record raided the wrong home and fatally shot an innocent man.
And it's more than just an image problem for those who make their living as skip tracers. Pressure from lawmakers is slowly reining in the storied profession, eroding unparalleled freedoms born in the days of the Wild West.
Reality vs. ‘The Wild Bunch’
Bounty hunters are hired by bail bond agents to track down and arrest clients who have failed to appear in court as required. They haul in an estimated 30,000 bail jumpers every year, earning a typical fee of about 10 percent of the bail amount.
The thousands of agents working in business range from private investigators and former police officers, to people like Crystal McElroy, a 26-year-old mother of three who works as a bounty hunter in Santa Fe, N.M.
The profession has long been a fixture of the American imagination, appearing in movies such as The Wild Bunch, Midnight Run, and even Star Wars. But the reality is usually not very glamorous, those in the industry say.
Bounty hunters spend days tracking down and staking out their prey. Professionals admit chases and high drama are rare, and many seasoned agents say they often just call the police when they've tracked down a particularly dangerous fugitive.
Only a few hundred agents around the country are able to support themselves as full-time bounty hunters, experts say.
"It's a tough business," said Wells. "I recommend to people — and I always have — don't quit your day job."
The ‘Rambo Approach’
Most bounty hunters are responsible professionals, but traditionally, virtually anyone could enter the field, and under a Supreme Court decision in 1872, they have enjoyed police-like powers.
It's the freedom and the racy image that have attracted some of the wrong sorts of people.
"There's a lot of people who take the 'Rambo' approach," admits Dennis Bartlett, the executive director of the American Bail Coalition.
Something like that apparently is what happened in Virginia.
A bounty hunter named James Dickerson allegedly went to the wrong home on Christmas Eve while pursuing a fugitive. Dickerson and another man broke down the door, dragged a man outside and killed him, police said.
Dickerson had a criminal record; his alleged victim, Roberto Martinez, did not.
In Virginia, as has been the case in many states, virtually anyone can work as a bounty hunter, without obtaining a license or undergoing a background check.
Horror stories like the Martinez case are not new.
Earlier this year, two bail bondsmen in Fairfax, Va., were arrested after allegedly taking money from a couple they had recaptured after posting bond for them, police there reported.
In Houston last month, Thang Quoc Le pleaded not guilty to hiring a bounty hunter to kill a man who had been seeing his wife.
Last June, a 23-year-old man died after struggling with three bounty hunters in Kansas City. One of the men was charged with involuntary manslaughter and pleaded not guilty.
Breaking Down the Door to Your Home — Legally
The extensive power granted to bounty hunters stems from an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Taylor vs.Taintor. The high court ruled that a bail bond agent or bounty hunter can pursue bail jumpers across state lines, break into their homes, and arrest him or her at anytime.
These cases and others have highlighted the unusual police-like power and latitude given to bounty hunters.
Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court granted bounty hunter Michael Kole a new trial, on the grounds that he had the legal authority to arrest a defendant "at any time or place." Kole had been convicted of abduction and burglary after he and a partner had entered a fugitive's home and held the man at gunpoint.
With Little Success Curtailing Their Power…
Lawmakers have repeatedly tried to curtail bounty hunters' powers, generally without success.
Efforts were jumpstarted in 1997, after a young couple was killed in their Phoenix, Ariz., home by men who claimed to be bounty hunters. The case prompted Arizona to pass a law requiring bounty hunters to be licensed and to obtain permission before entering a home.
Similar cases have periodically renewed interest in cracking down on the profession in other states, but bounty hunters have fiercely fought such efforts.
Bartlett and other bounty hunter advocates insist it would be impossible to do the job without the power to make arrests and enter home without warrants.
"If you don't have some sort of coercive authority you're never going to pick the guy up," said Wells.
Bounty hunters insist they are performing an important public function. The bail system helps combat jail overcrowding, they argue. Police are rarely interested in pursuing bail jumpers charged with relatively minor offenses, so the job is left to skip tracers, industry officials say.
…States Cracks Down on the ‘Scumbag Element’
Instead of drastically limiting bounty hunters' capabilities, many states have imposed restrictions on who can become a bail enforcement agent, as those in the industry prefer to be called.
California, for example, passed legislation in 2000 requiring bail-enforcement agent to receive about two weeks of training and undergo a background check for felony convictions.
The various state restrictions create a tangle of confusion for those in the business, though. In Texas, bounty hunters cannot carry fire arms, for example, but in California they can. In some states they cannot carry a badge and wear identifying clothing, but in others they are required to do so.
"There's so much gray area. Even the cops don't know what we can or can't do," complains Wells.
For many in the industry, some restrictions such as criminal background checks are welcome.
"What it's done is sort of driven the scumbag element out of the picture," says Bartlett, the executive director of the American Bail Coalition.