The Life and Times of Bounty Hunters

Pat Garrett - legendary bounty hunterA bounty hunter is someone who tracks down fugitives and returns them to jail for money. Bounty hunters first began showing up in the United States in the mid 1800’s as a result of western expansion into the less populated regions of the country. Law enforcement was scarce during that time and many towns offered rewards for catching or killing fugitives. The most famous bounty hunter of that time was Pat Garret who tracked down and killed notorious criminal Billy the Kid. During those times, bounty hunters acted as lawmen in a lot of western towns that didn’t have a Sheriff or other type of law enforcement.

These days bounty hunters prefer to be called bail enforcement agents, but to the majority of us they will always be bounty hunters. The profession is much more regulated than it was during the wild west but it hasn’t gotten much less dangerous. While most fugitives return to jail peacefully there are those that will do whatever it takes to elude capture. These days, a bounty hunter is more private investigator than lawman, spending most of their time talking to the fugitive’s family and friends to help figure out where they might be.

What do Modern Bounty Hunters do and How do they Make Money

While a lot has changed since Pat Garret was chasing down Billy the Kid 130 years ago, the central premise of bounty hunting has remained the same: catch the fugitive and return them to jail. There are two ways bounty hunters make money. The first, and most common, is finding people who skipped out on bail and return them to prison. Sometimes bail is more than a defendant can afford so they utilize a bail bond to get out. Bail bonds are provided by bondsman or bail agents. The defendant, a friend, or relative, pays the bondsman’s fee, which is usually 10-20% of the bail amount, and the agent issues a bond to the court for bail. Essentially, the agent is paying the bail for the defendant. If the defendant skips bail and doesn’t show up for their scheduled court appearances bail is forfeit and a warrant is issued for their arrest. The defendant is now considered a fugitive.

In this scenario the bail agent has just lost the entire amount they paid to the court to get the defendant released and won’t be able to get it back until the fugitive returns to jail. Because bail can be substantial, bondsman have a lot incentive to find the accused and have them returned to prison as soon as possible.

This is where bounty hunters come in. If the bail agent isn’t able to find the fugitive after speaking with known family and friends they will most likely hire a bounty hunter to track down the accused and have them returned to jail. The bounty hunters fee is usually 10% of the bail amount and is paid once the fugitive is returned to custody.

The second way bounty hunters make a living is by finding fugitives who have a reward offered for their capture. The reward might be provided by a law enforcement agency, like the FBI and their most wanted list, or a victim’s family or support group. The reason so few bounty hunters make a living this is way is because not many fugitives have rewards offered for their arrest. It’s much easier to find a low level fugitive than one who has the FBI and other law enforcement agencies trying to track them down.

While being a bounty hunter sounds exciting, it doesn’t pay particularly well. The last known salary survey found that the average bounty hunter makes approximately $36,000 a year. While that number has surely gone up since the survey was conducted in 1997 it’s not a lot considering the insurance, travel, and equipment costs needed to be a successful bounty hunter.

How To Find Fugitives

stakeout in carFinding a fugitive is a lot of hard work. While there are moments of excitement, like when a fugitive is apprehended, the work leading up to that point can be tedious. Most bounty hunters will tell you 99% of their time is spent making phone calls, following-up on dead-end leads, and sitting in their car waiting to catch a glimpse of the person they’re trying to apprehend.

When a defendant uses a bail bond to get out of prison they need to provide a lot of personal information to the bondsman, like their phone number, social security number, address, the address of relatives, and license plate number. Bounty hunters start by going through all the available information that might help locate the fugitive.

They’ll talk to family and friends to see if they know the fugitives whereabouts or places they like to hang out, like their favorite bar or restaurant. They then spend a lot of time staking out those locations and speaking to employees to find out when the last time the fugitive was there. Bounty hunters will provide their phone number to those employees and some will promise a generous tip for any info leading to the fugitive’s capture.

The best resource is usually anyone who put up cash or collateral to get the accused out of prison because they will have forfeited their payment. They’ll feel slighted by the person they tried to help and will most likely be able to provide the best information about their whereabouts.

Finding fugitives is starting to become more high tech with some bounty hunters using social media like Facebook or Twitter to help track down fugitives. More than one has been found after “checking-in” at their favorite restaurant or bar or just updating their place of residence. Some habits die hard I guess.

According to the National Association of Bail Agents, they use these techniques to return 90% of all fugitives to jail.

How to Become a Bounty Hunter

In most states no formal training or licensure is required to become a bounty hunter. However a number of training programs have been popping up over the past few years, no doubt to take advantage of the professions’ surge in popularity brought on by reality tv shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter. Training programs cost anywhere from $75 to thousands but if you’re serious about giving the profession a try my recommendation is to contact an established bounty hunter and ask if they have any training or internship opportunities available. They may let you shadow them or help out part-time so you can get a feel for the day to day responsibilities of the job.

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Clive Johnson

Clive is a bail expert from the Tucson area who started this site to correct a number of myths about the industry. He's also a family man with a wife and three kids. When he's not working he spends his time on the golf course or at the Rotary club.