Monday, January 31, 2011

The Bounty Hunter's Pursuit of Justice

When felony defendants jump bail, bounty hunters spring into action.  It’s a uniquely American system, and it works.

Excerpts: As printed in the 2011 Winter issue of the Wilson Quarterly

By Alex Tabarrok
Alex Tabarrok is Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and director of research for the Independent Institute.  He writes regularly with coauthor Tyler Cowen at the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution.

Andrew Luster had it all: a multimillion-dollar trust fund, good looks, and a bachelor pad just off the beach in Mussel Shoals, California.  Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics legend Max Factor, spent his days surfing and his nights cruising the clubs.  His life would have been sad but unremarkable if he had not had a fetish for sex with unconscious women.  When one woman alleged rape, Luster claimed mutual consent, but the videotapes the police discovered when they searched his home told a different story.  Eventually, more than 10 women came forward, and he was convicted of 20 counts of rape and sentenced to 124 years in prison.  There was only one problem.  Luster could not be found.

Shortly before he was expected to take the stand, Luster withdrew funds from his brokerage accounts, found a caretaker for his dog, and skipped town on a $1 million bail bond.  The FBI put Luster on its most-wanted list, but months passed with no results.  In the end, the authorities did not find him.  But Luster was brought to justice—by a dog (or at least a man who goes by that name).  Duane Chapman, star of the A&E reality TV show Dog: The Bounty Hunter, tracked Luster for months.  He picked up clues to Luster’s whereabouts from old phone bills and from Luster’s mother, who inadvertently revealed that her son spoke fluent Spanish.  He also gleaned useful information from a mysterious Mr. X who taunted him by e-mail and who may have been Luster himself.  Finally, a tip from someone who had seen Dog on television brought Chapman to a small town in Mexico known for its great surfing.  Days later, he and his team spotted Luster at a taco stand, apprehended him, and turned him over to the local police.

Most people don’t realize how many fugitives from the law there are.  About one-quarter of all felony defendants fail to show up on the day of their trial. Some of these absences are due to forgetfulness, hospitalization, or even imprisonment on another charge.  But like Luster, many felony defendants skip court with willful intent.  The police are charged with recapturing these fugitives, but some of them are chased by an even more tireless pursuer, the bounty hunter.

Bounty hunters and bail bondsmen play an important but unsung role in a legal system whose court dockets are too crowded to provide swift justice.  When a suspect is arrested, a judge must make a decision: set the suspect free on his own recognizance until the court is ready to proceed, hold the suspect in jail, or release the accused on the condition that he post a bail bond.  A bond is a promise backed by incentive.  If the suspect shows up on the trial date, he gets his money back; but if he fails to show, the money is forfeited.  We don’t want to deprive the innocent of their liberty, but we also don’t want to give the guilty too much of a head start on their escape.  Bail bonds don’t solve this problem completely, but they do give judges an additional tool to help them navigate the dilemma.

Bail might be a rich man’s privilege were it not for the bail bondsman.  (Many bondsmen are women, but “bondsperson” doesn’t have quite the same ring, so I’ll use the standard terminology.)  In return for a non-refundable fee, usually around 10 percent of the bond, a bondsman will put up his own money with the court.  A typical bond might run $6,000. If the defendant shows up, the bondsman earns $600.  But if the defendant flees, the bondsman potentially can forfeit $6,000.  Potentially, because when a fugitive fails to appear, the court gives the bondsman a notice that essentially says, “Bring your charge to justice soon or your money is mine.”  A bondsman typically has 90 to 180 days to bring a fugitive back to justice, so when a defendant jumps bail, the bondsman lets the dogs loose.

Actually, that last image suggesting a massive manhunt is misleading.  Bail bond firms are often small, family-run businesses—the wife writes the bonds and the husband, the “bounty hunter,” searches for clients who fail to show up in court.  Although a bondsman never knows when a desperate client might turn violent, his job is usually routine, as I found out when Dennis Sew volunteered to show me the ropes.  Dennis has been in the business for more than 20 years and in 2009 was named agent of the year by the Professional Bail Agents of the United States.

More on this story to follow . . .

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