When you think of bounty hunters, you probably conjure up images of “Wanted” posters and cowboys tracking down fugitives in the Wild West. While the title has an attachment to that time period, there is a lot more to know about bounty hunting than what's usually portrayed in popular media. Here are some rewarding facts about this fascinating and controversial profession.
1. A bounty hunter’s job revolves around bail money.
When someone is arrested, they have the opportunity to leave jail until their court date by paying bail. Bail is a deposit the defendant makes to the courthouse with the promise that they will return for all court proceedings in the future. If they do, they’ll get their money back.
Bail bond companies operate by agreeing to pay a defendant’s deposit for a fee (usually 10 percent of the overall bail amount). They also rely on the defendant showing up to court to get their money back. However, if the defendant flees, the bail bond company loses their deposit unless the person appears in court within the designated grace period.
This is where bounty hunters come in. Although many may mistake them as members of law enforcement, they actually work with bail bond companies and are paid a percentage of the bail amount once they have successfully returned their target. That’s part of why these people often prefer to be known as Fugitive Recovery or Bail Enforcement Agents, since they’re actually just enforcing conditions of bail bond contracts (proper bounty hunters are motivated by rewards offered by governments or other entities). But in popular usage, this is what a bounty hunter is.
2. The history of bounty hunters is hard to pin down.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the practice of hiring professionals to track down bail jumpers first began, but the bail system itself can be traced back as far as Medieval England [PDF]. In that system, an accused criminal would be assigned a “surety,” or a person (a friend or family member) who would make sure they showed up for any trials and went through with any punishments handed down. If the accused decided to flee, the surety would be punished in their place. In essence, the bail was a person.
This eventually developed into a monetary bail system, which was later adopted by the United States (America took inspiration from many of England’s judiciary policies, sans the monarchy, when the Constitution was written). Bounty hunters became a bigger—and far more unfortunate—part of American history in 1793, when Congress enacted the first of two Fugitive Slave Acts. This gave enslavers the legal right to track down and forcibly return any enslaved people who had sought freedom, even ones who went to free states. This led to many enslavers hiring bounty hunters to do the work for them.
A revised act was put into law in 1850 that encouraged local governments and ordinary citizens, free state or not, to help capture any enslaved people who had fled. Faced with widespread criticism, both acts were repealed in 1864, but it helped normalize the act of bounty hunting in U.S. culture.
3. The term bounty hunter had different meanings until the 1950s.
Another reason the history of bounty hunting is difficult to pin down is that it didn’t take on its current meaning until the 1950s. Before then, bounty was known to mean “kindness” or a “yield of crop.” In the 18th century, it changed to mean a reward, according to Merriam-Webster. The term bounty hunter was usually designated for recruits in the army and navy looking to secure their reward (or bonus) for enlisting.
In a series of fictional stories he wrote for his local newspaper in the early '50s, author Norman A. Fox was one of the first people to use the term to mean someone hired to track down criminals for a financial reward. The new meaning caught on, and around the same time, Elmore Leonard's novel The Bounty Hunters and a movie titled The Bounty Hunter became wildly popular. This depiction of the job has remained a staple in Hollywood films.
4. Bounty hunters do a lot of research.
The job isn’t as violent as Hollywood may have you believe. While many bounty hunters have gotten into their fair share of trouble (famous bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson was allegedly killed by a car bomb planted by one of his targets), their daily work routine mainly revolves around research. It’s common for agents to take on multiple clients at once, and they can’t waste precious time and money chasing their leads around the country like in an action movie. Bounty hunters spend days or weeks collecting information on the fugitive, finding recent contacts, and tracing small leads before they get an idea of where the person is hiding.
5. Bounty hunters are highly successful.
And that much prep work means the majority of them are good at what they do. While there is no central reporting of bounty hunter statistics, they obviously need to be successful for bail bond companies to remain profitable.
“A realistic estimate would be 90-percent-plus of defendants released on bail bond that fail to appear are captured and returned to custody prior to a final judgment of forfeiture,” Chuck Jordan, President of the National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents, a trade organization, tells Mental Floss in an email.
6. The legal status of bounty hunting varies by state.
Although bounty hunting is legal at the federal level, local laws vary by state. Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin ban the practice and the entire business of bail bonds completely. And as of 2017, 22 states, like Florida and Arizona, required a bounty hunter license to practice. On the other hand, some states don’t require a license but do demand formal training. And some states allow virtually anyone to become a bounty hunter.
7. International laws can become an issue for bounty hunters.
Virtually everywhere else in the world, bounty hunting is considered kidnapping. Only the Philippines has a commercial bail bond system that looks anything like what is used in the United States. This hasn’t stopped everyone, though. In 2004, two bounty hunters were charged with kidnapping in Canada after following a Canadian businessman into the country and forcibly taking him back across the border. And the previous year, Duane “Dog” Chapman (not yet a reality star) and his crew went after a fugitive named Andrew Luster who had fled from the U.S. to Mexico. When they eventually caught up with Luster in Puerto Vallarta, Chapman and his associates captured him and tossed him into a van to return him to the States. But Mexican authorities stopped the vehicle near an airport and arrested everyone inside, including Luster, who was eventually handed over to U.S. federal authorities. Chapman spent two weeks in jail before jumping bail himself and returning to the U.S., where the threat of extradition lingered for years before a judge tossed the case.
8. The loose regulations around bounty hunting continue to cause controversy.
Bounty hunting is a controversial profession due to the cloudiness around regulations. Even the late-19th century court case that gave bounty hunters their wide range of legalities, Taylor v. Taintor [PDF], is often cited as being too broad and ill-defined. A 2008 article published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior cited several examples of bounty hunters using excessive force, arresting innocent citizens, and giving the public perception that they are vigilantes. Unfortunately, the discrepancy around the rules has led to issues as small as a violation of privacy to accidental deaths. The paper argues that “[because] both bail bond agents and bounty hunters are considered private actors, they are sometimes free from constitutional constraints placed on criminal justice agents acting under the color of law.”
Legislators in states like Kansas and Idaho, where bounty hunter rules are minimal, have tried for years to increase regulation. But they’ve only made it as far as requiring agents to wear badges and notify local law enforcement before attempting an arrest. Because they rely on each other, efforts to regulate the bail system are often fought by bail bond lobbyists and the bounty hunters themselves.