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Bounty Hunter

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Name for a category of persons who are offered a promised gratuity in return for "hunting" down and capturing or killing a designated target, usually a person or animal.

Bounty hunters can be defined broadly as a category of persons who track down someone or something for money. A bounty is a subsidy that is paid to a category of persons who have performed a public service. Bounty is the proper term to be applied when the services of several persons are sought, and each person who fulfills the offer is entitled to the promised compensation. By contrast, a reward compensates a single service to be performed only once, such as in the capture of a fugitive. Therefore, it will be earned solely by the person who succeeds in this regard.

In practice, bounty hunters usually track down criminal defendants who skip bail and fail to appear for court appointments. Bail skipping is a constant in the American criminal justice system. In 1994, the department of justice reported that 25 percent of felony defendants who had been released on their own recognizance had failed to appear at their trials. Over the past decade, bounty hunters have apprehended about 25,000 fugitives in the United States each year. It has been estimated that they return to custody over 99 percent of the criminal defendants who skip bail.

Courts have granted bounty hunters extensive powers for the purposes of returning fugitives to justice. These include the powers to pursue a fugitive into another state, to arrest him or her at any time, and to break into a fugitive's house in order to capture him or her. The powers of a bounty hunter are usually received vicariously, through powers that already are invested in a bail bondsman.

Bounty hunters have existed since medieval times—the notion of bail predates written English Law. The foundation for bounty-hunter rights in the United States was laid down in the 1872 case of Taylor v. Taintor, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 366, 21 L.Ed. 287 (1872). "Where one charged with crime is released upon bail, he is regarded as being delivered to custody of his sureties. Their dominion is a continuance of the original imprisonment," wrote the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that has never been overruled.

There has been increasing controversy in the United States over bounty hunters, with concern voiced over the lack of control that a state has over their behavior. In response, some states have taken to curbing the bounty hunter's activities. For, example, in 1998, Arizona passed a bill restricting bounty hunters from entering a residence without the consent of an occupant, as well as prohibiting bounty hunters from misrepresenting themselves as law enforcement agents or from working as a bounty hunter if convicted of certain crimes.

Further Readings

Drimmer, Jonathan. 1996. "When Man Hunts Man: The Rights and Duties of Bounty Hunters in the American Criminal Justice System." Houston Law Review 33 (fall).

Patrick, Andrew DeForest. 1999. "Running from the Law: Should Bounty Hunters Be Considered State Actors and Thus Subject to Constitutional Restraints?" Vanderbilt Law Review 52 (January).

U.S. House of Representatives. 2000. Bounty Hunter Responsibility Act of 1999: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives. One Hundred Sixth Congress, 2d session, on H.R. 2964, March 30. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O.