New rules considered for bounty hunters Accusations of abuse prompt proposals to stiffen regulations

November 16, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The knock came shortly after 7 a.m. As the door was answered, five agents, pistols and batons in hand, entered the tiny brick rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore, plowed up the stairs to a bedroom and nabbed their man.

Anthony William Burnes stumbled out of bed and pulled on jeans and a sweat shirt. Still groggy, he was handcuffed and driven away as relatives peered out a window.

Because the armed men were bounty hunters, they needed no search warrant to enter Burnes' house. There was no need to read him his rights. They simply arrested Burnes, a robbery suspect who allegedly had missed a court date, and sent him to jail.

A throwback to the Old West and the days when "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters hung from storefronts, bounty hunting occupies a little-known corner of the law enforcement world that has been subject to scant oversight. In most states, including Maryland, bounty hunters -- who are hired to find and recover fugitives who skip bail -- wield powers of seizure that police officers lack.

Recently, in a string of incidents revealing a shadowy side of their trade, bounty hunters have been accused of abusing innocent people by ransacking their homes, detaining them without reasonable cause and threatening their lives.

Some lawmakers in Washington and around the country want to crack down. It is time, they say, to abolish a loophole in the law that has granted people with no police experience a form of arrest power, including the right to barge into a house where a fugitive could be hiding.

"There is nothing more important than the sanctity of your home," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, the Arkansas Republican who is spearheading federal legislation to hold bounty hunters to the same standards of behavior as police.

Such legislation would provide legal recourse for those who believe their civil rights have been violated. Without such a law, the congressman said, "a bounty hunter could come into your home, do harm to you, and there's nothing you could do about it."

In a high-profile 1997 case, four men in ski masks and body armor who claimed to be bounty hunters broke into a house in Phoenix and fatally shot a young couple. The leader of the group was convicted last month of murder, and the case triggered a nationwide push for restrictions.

The powers enjoyed by bounty hunters stem from an 1873 Supreme Court ruling that a criminal suspect who signs a contract with a bondsman to post bail becomes, in effect, in the custody of the bondsman. The suspect implicitly forfeits his civil rights. He agrees that the bondsman -- or his paid agent, the bounty hunter -- can use force to recover him if he flees.

Lack of certification

Critics, many of whom acknowledge the legitimate role played by the nation's 5,000 bounty hunters, say they are alarmed by the ease with which anyone -- even convicted criminals -- can become a bounty hunter.

In most states, it takes no license, no training and no experience. A bondsman's sign-off, designating a hired agent, empowers the bounty hunter to enter even the home of someone the fugitive is visiting.

"There's no other area of the law that allows you to break into people's houses and make arrests with no training or background, when you may actually have a criminal record yourself," said Jonathan Drimmer, a lawyer and expert on bounty hunters. "They perform a useful social function, but let's create some regulations."

Often mistaken for police, many bounty hunters are licensed to carry guns. Courts have recognized legal rights that belong to bounty hunters but not to ordinary citizens. For example, private citizens cannot break into someone else's home, even to arrest a felon. But a bounty hunter can do so if he thinks a fugitive is inside, notes Jerold Israel, a law professor at the University of Florida.

"Without the contractual interest that the bondsman has flowing out of the bonding arrangement, a private citizen would not be allowed to enter a home," he said.

Bounty hunters paint a benign picture of themselves. They perform a vital law enforcement role, they argue, claiming responsibility for returning 87 percent of fugitives who are brought back to court. Without their services, they add, many bondsmen would refuse to post bail -- and innocent people who couldn't afford their own bail would languish in jail awaiting trial.

"There's nothing wrong with the profession -- it's a responsible one," said Stephen Kreimer, executive director of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States.

Kreimer added that more states should require bounty hunters to undergo training. A few states have such laws. According to legal experts, about half the states are considering some type of curbs on bounty hunters.

'Important public service'

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