Bounty hunters, or “fugitive recovery agents” as they are often called these days, work for or with bail agents. They are empowered by the bondsman to track down and recover an accused criminal who has violated the terms of their release. Although controversial, they play an important role in safeguarding the public and helping the bail agent avoid being ripped off by those intent on avoiding justice.

bounty hunter


Bounty hunters have been a part of the American landscape since the 19th century. Over time they have become swaddled in myth, mostly pertaining to the Old West, where their services were integral in pursuing and bringing to justice fugitives who had escaped into the vast open spaces of the time. Today, they are still used to track down and return fugitives to justice although there mandate remains largely misunderstood. So what exactly is a bounty hunter able to do on behalf of the bonding agent?

Tracking Down Fugitives for the Bondsman

Bounty hunters are empowered as we said, by bond agents to track down and arrest clients who have skipped bail. In most cases they are paid a percentage of the bond but only receive payment if they successfully apprehend the fugitive and return him to custody. Because failure means no payment bounty hunters tend to be very motivated to succeed and aren’t known for backing off in pursuit of their quarry.

For various reasons the federal government has been reluctant to step in and regulate the business. In 1872 in fact, the Supreme Court handed down a decision known as Taylor v Taintor which established the broad outlines of the fugitive recovery business that are still in use today. In that decision the court stated that bounty hunters may pursue a fugitive “into another state… and if necessary, break and enter his house…” for the purposes of arresting him.

Using that decision states have adopted their own guidelines regarding bounty hunters that clarify boundaries and establish some basic regulations. Although guidelines tend to vary from state to state. In most states, in order for a person to become a bounty hunter they need to:

  • Be at least 18 years of age.
  • Have a clean record regarding felonies.
  • Be able to provide basic character references.
  • Register with local law enforcement.
  • Undergo specific training.

Again, rules regarding bounty hunters will vary from state to state and will range from the strict to the virtually nonexistent.

  • In Georgia for instance, bounty hunters must undergo firearms training and be at least 21 years of age. Aspiring bounty hunters must also pass an 8 hour course in fugitive recovery run by the state.
  • In Illinois bounty hunting and the bail bonding business that employs bounty hunters are outlawed. (Some see that as contributing to the fact that Illinois has some of the highest murder rates in the country.)
  • Montana, by comparison, has virtually no regulations on the books that pertain to bounty hunters. As such just about anyone who says they’re a bounty hunter can offer fugitive recovery services in Big Sky Country.

Because bounty hunters are not federal, state or local law enforcement agents they can’t be held liable for using excessive force during an arrest. They are also allowed to cross state and county lines in pursuit of suspects. So whereas a sheriff in Adams County, Broomfield County, Weld County or Denver would be prohibited from operating in a different county, there are no such restrictions on bounty hunters.

No Blank Check

Bounty hunters hired by bail agents to track down wayward defendants are given quite a bit of leeway as we have seen but they don’t have a blank check to do whatever they please. Different states apply different restrictions including:

  • Limits on what a bounty hunter can wear - In some states residents and law enforcement officers have taken exception to what they view as an attempt by some bounty hunters to adopt the look of police officers. As a result they have adopted laws which forbid bounty hunters to wear police-style uniforms or badges that could be mistaken with official police badges.
  • Limits on the vehicles a bounty hunter can drive - As with uniforms some bounty hunters had taken it upon themselves to outfit their automobiles to resemble police vehicles. Naturally, law enforcement agencies took exception to this practice and now several states have passed laws designed to prevent bounty hunters from driving vehicles that could be mistaken for police cars.
  • Limits on pursuit - While the law in most states allows a bounty hunter to pursue a fugitive on behalf of a bail bonds agent into their home, they are not allowed to enter someone else’s home unless there is reason some sort of proof the fugitive is actually in there.
  • Forbidden from carrying firearms - Some states forbid bounty hunters to carry firearms out of a fear that they will wind up shooting innocent people in their pursuit of a fugitive. This can create some tricky situations when an armed bounty hunter pursues a suspect over state lines.
  • Licensing - Some states require bounty hunters to be licensed while others do not. Again, this can lead to confusing situations should a pursuit cross state lines.

Without effective bounty hunters fugitives would rule the day and bondsmen would wind up being driven out of business by clients jumping bail. So, while they remain controversial bounty hunters nonetheless perform an important societal function.