Friday, February 11, 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.

Article continued:

Nevertheless, I was apprehensive as I drove to Baltimore early one morning to try my hand at bounty hunting.

When Dennis and I meet, he hands me a photo showing our first fugitive of the day.  I'll be honest.  I was expecting to see a young African-American male.  What can I say?  It's Baltimore and I've seen every episode of The Wire.  But I'm surprised.  Taken a few years ago in better times, the picture shows an attractive young woman, perhaps at her prom.  She has long blond hair and bright eyes.  She is smiling.
We drive to the house where a tip has placed her.  It's a middle-class home in a nice suburb. Children's toys are strewn about the garden.  I'm accompanied by Dennis and two of his coworkers-a former police officer and a former sheriff's deputy.  One of them takes the back while Dennis knocks.  A woman still in her nightclothes answers.  She does not seem surprised to have four men knocking at her door this early in the morning.  She volunteers that we can search the house, and eventually we get the whole story from her.

"Chrissy," our fugitive, is the woman's niece.  Chrissy was at the house two days before and may return.  The once attractive young woman has had her life ruined by drugs.  Or she has ruined her life with drugs-sometimes it's hard to tell.  She is now a heroin addict whose boyfriend regularly beats her.  The aunt is momentarily shocked when we show her the photo. No, she doesn't look like that anymore-her hair is brown, her face is covered with scabs and usually bruised, and she weighs maybe 85 pounds.  "Be gentle with her," the aunt says, even though, she predicts, "she will probably fight."

The aunt gives us another location to scout: a parking lot where Chrissy and her mother are supposedly living out of a car.  We are about to leave when the aunt thanks us for being quiet, because there's a child in the house who was scared the last time the police came by.  The child is Chrissy's son.  We drive to the location and look for the car.  Dennis and his deputies see what looks like the vehicle and knock on one of the dirty windows, peering intently into the interior.  The car is empty.  Dennis and his deputies will return later.

What it takes to be a successful bounty hunter is mostly persistence and politeness.  On most days your leads don't pay off, so you need to visit and revisit the fugitive's home, work, and favorite hangouts.  Waiting is a big part of the game.  Why politeness?  Well, where do the leads come from?  From people like Chrissy's aunt-relatives and friends who might not talk to the police but who will respond to a kind word.  Bounty hunters are polite even to the fugitives who, after all, are also their customers, and sadly, bounty hunters rely a lot on repeat business.  One customer of a firm owned by the same family that runs the one Dennis works for told him proudly, "My family and I have been coming to Frank's Bail Bonds for three generations."

Most fugitives don't fight, and Dennis is eager to avoid confrontation.  Cowboys don't last long in this business.  Most bounty hunters have a working relationship with police officers and will sometimes call on them to make the arrest once a fugitive has been located.

A bounty hunter also benefits from being prepared.  A typical application for a bond, for example, requires information about the defendant's residence, employer, former employer, spouse, children (along with their names and schools), spouse's employer, mother, father, automobile (including description, tags, and financing), union membership, previous arrests, and so forth.  In addition, bond dealers need access to all kinds of public and private databases. Noted bounty hunter Bob Burton says that a list of friends who work at the telephone, gas, or electric utility, the post office, welfare agencies, and in law enforcement is a major asset.  Today, familiarity with the Internet and computer databases is a must.

Good bond dealers master the tricks of their trade.  The first three digits of a Social Security number, for example, indicate the state where the number was issued.  This information can suggest that an applicant might be lying if he claims to have been born elsewhere, and it may provide a clue about where a skipped defendant has family or friends.

If at all possible, bail bondsmen get a friend or family member to cosign the bond.  The reason is simple.  A defendant whose bond is cosigned is less likely to flee.  As Dennis told me, "In my line of work, I deal with some mean people, people who aren't afraid of me or the police.  But even the mean ones are afraid of their mom, so if I can get Mom to list her house as collateral, I know the defendant is much more likely to show up when he is supposed to."  A defendant whose bond is cosigned is also more likely to be caught if he does flee, because the bondsman will remind the cosigner that if the fugitive can't be found, it's not just the bondsman who will be left holding the bag.

Bounty hunters have robust rights to arrest fugitives.  They can, for example, lawfully break into a suspect's home without a warrant, pursue and recover fugitives across state lines without necessity of extradition proceedings, and search and seize without the constraint of the Fourth Amendment's "reasonableness" requirement.  Just like everyone else, however, bounty hunters must obey the criminal statutes.  A bounty hunter who uses unreasonable force or mistakenly enters the home of someone who is not a bail jumper is subject to criminal prosecution.

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