Many defendants who have been arrested secure their temporary release from jail through bail—that is, by depositing a sum of money set by a magistrate with the court. This deposit is designed to ensure their subsequent return to court. Because few defendants can afford to post the entire bail amount, most turn to bail bond companies.
A bail bond agent (commonly known as a bail bondsman) charges the defendant a nonrefundable fee in exchange for depositing a bond with the government for the full amount of bail.
A bail bond amounts to a contract between the government and the person who posts it—in this instance, the bail bond agent. The government agrees to release the defendant from jail in exchange for a guarantee from the bond agent that the defendant will appear in court as the proceedings require. This guarantee is backed by the bond for the bail amount. If the defendant fails to return to court, the bondsperson must pay to the state the amount of the bond. In other words, if the defendant is a no show, the bail bond company forfeits the entire sum of bail. (For more on a related topic, see Bail Jumping—or Failing to Appear After Bailing Out. Also see Does anyone regulate bail bond companies?)
Bail bond agents are effectively investing in their clients. For example, if a defendant’s bail is $10,000, the agent may charge the defendant a nonrefundable fee of $1,000 to post a bail bond in the amount of $10,000 with the court. If the defendant fails to appear for court, the bondsperson is potentially out $9,000 ($10,000 paid to the court minus the $1,000 received from the defendant).
Because they stand to lose so much, bail bond agents typically have the authority under state law to authorize what amounts to the arrest of clients who skip bond. To avoid forfeiture of the bond to the state, the bond agent may hire a bounty hunter to find the fugitive and return him to the government within an amount of time that’s been set by statute.
Bounty hunters are people who have the authority of bond agents to arrest delinquent clients and deliver them to the appropriate authorities. They are usually paid a percentage of the bond amount. But they get paid only if they apprehend and return the fugitives. It’s no surprise that they’re so motivated—and often effective—at getting defendants back to court.
The federal government has been reluctant to regulate bounty hunters. Moreover, many states don’t have laws specifically designed for them.
Those states that do regulate bounty hunting typically don’t have stringent requirements for becoming a bounty hunter. Typical prerequisites for a career in bounty hunting include:
Bounty hunters sometimes use excessive means to capture their targets. Reckless pursuits and apprehensions—including those involving excessive force—can cause considerable harm not only to fugitives, but also innocent bystanders.
Many people who have been victims of violence at the hands of bounty hunters have gone to court, with mixed results. Bounty hunters and their employers can be held liable for the former’s misdeeds—their victims have, for example, successfully sued for false imprisonment and acts of violence. (See Mason v. City of New York, 949 F. Supp. 1068 (S.D.N.Y. 1996).) But victims haven’t had as much success when they’ve sued the government for the acts of bounty hunters. For instance, most federal appellate courts have determined that bounty hunters and bond agents don’t act on behalf of the state. (See Green v. Abony Bail Bond, 316 F. Supp. 2d 1254 (M.D. Fla. 2004).)
Example: A bounty hunter in Texas was seeking to apprehend Ruth Garcia, who had skipped bail. He mistakenly identified Betty Cabellero as his target and proceeded to beat her severely. Caballero was pregnant and had a miscarriage. Caballero filed suit against the bond company under the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The court held that this law didn't apply because the bounty hunter and bond agent weren’t acting on behalf of the government. (Caballero v. Aamco Bail Bonding Co., 149 F.3d 1179 (5th Cir. 1998)).
If you've bailed out and missed your court date or are otherwise in trouble with the law, consult an experienced attorney. If you feel you've been mistreated, do the same. A knowledgeable lawyer will be able to advise you of the applicable law and weigh your options.