Bounty Hunter Laws

Do you know what to do if a dogged bounty hunter breaks down your door?

Adam Freedman
November 3, 2009

Today’s topic: Bounty Hunters!

But first, your daily dose of legalese: This podcast does not create an attorney-client relationship with any listener. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Bounty Hunter Laws

A listener asks whether it’s true that “a bounty hunter can enter his prey's residence without a warrant,” and, “if a bounty hunter breaks down a door can the person inside legally use deadly force to defend himself?”

Great question!

What is a Bounty Hunter?

In case you haven’t been following the exploits of Dog the Bounty Hunter, let me explain that a “bounty hunter” is a person who captures bail jumpers for a reward, that is, for a “bounty.” A bounty hunter may also be known as a bail bondsman, bail agent, bail officer, fugitive recovery agent, fugitive recovery officer, or bail fugitive recovery specialist. Of course, local and state police departments and the FBI also hunt for fugitives, but the financial incentive of a bounty often leads to faster apprehension of bail jumpers. In other words, bounty really is the quicker picker upper. 

Of course, local and state police departments and the FBI also hunt for fugitives, but the financial incentive of a bounty often leads to faster apprehension of bail jumpers. In other words, bounty really is the quicker picker upper.

Can a Bounty Hunter Enter a Fugitive’s House without a Warrant?

The short answer to our listener’s question is: Yes, a bounty hunter usually can enter a fugitive’s house without a warrant.

Why? When a person is released on bail, it means that the state is allowing a person who would otherwise be in jail, to go free under certain conditions, pending his or her trial. The traditional view of American courts is that the state continues to have the same power over an accused prisoner whether or not he or she is released on bail. Indeed, in order to secure his or her release on bail, the accused usually has to sign a contract that gives broad powers to the bail bondsman. And so, if a person jumps bail, the state or its agents -- in this case, the bail bondsmen -- have the same power that they would have, for example, over an escaped convict. 

In the 1873 case of Taylor v. Taintor, the U.S. Supreme Court held that under traditional common law principles, bail bondsmen can basically do as they please to arrest a suspect. “They may” -- and I quote -- “pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose.”

Some states have adopted statutes specifically defining the power of bounty hunters within their state. It appears that most states with their own statutes have preserved the common law rules set forth by Taylor v Taintor. This is the case, for example in Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Can Bounty Hunters Legally Enter Other People’s Homes?

Keep in mind that this power extends only to the fugitive’s own house. The situation is very different if we’re talking about the house of a third party. Virtually every state to have considered the issue has decided that a bail bondsman does not have the right to enter into the house of another person in order to seize a bail jumper. First of all, other people are not parties to the bail contract, so they never agreed to give the bondsman extraordinary powers, such as the ability to enter their house. Also, it’s important to remember that bounty hunters are not policemen -- they don’t have the power to search a person or enter their home on “probable cause.” 

When Can You Legally Use “Deadly Force”?

As far as third parties are concerned, an intruding bounty hunter is simply “breaking and entering” into their house. But what can third parties do? The listener mentioned using “deadly force” -- so let’s take a minute to address that question.

There is a common law rule that allows a person to avoid conviction for homicide, if he or she killed another person in defense of their home. Lawyers sometimes call this the “Castle Defense,” based on that old saw, “a man’s home is his castle.” That rule still exists in the U.S., but in general, the use of deadly force is only justifiable when a person forces entry into a house under circumstances that suggest that that person is about to kill or inflict serious injury on one of the inhabitants of the house, or if the person is at least about to commit some serious felony.

Under this rule, it’s unlikely that any court would ever find that it was justifiable to use deadly force against a bounty hunter who is doing his or her job.   After all, even if a bounty hunter mistakenly breaks into the house of third party, their intention is simply to apprehend the fugitive, not to commit a felony or harm the other inhabitants of the house. So, if a bounty hunter breaks into your house, you may ask him to leave; if he refuses, you may call the police. You may even use deadly sarcasm against the bounty hunter. But you should not use deadly force.

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