News Release ~ 03/12/1998

'Bounty Hunter' Bill Would Ensure Safety, Protect Citizens' Rights

Citizen Protection Act of 1998

Washington, DC (March 12, 1998) -- "Even though some bounty hunters are ex-convicts, or have otherwise been in trouble with the law, they enjoy broader powers to arrest fugitives than do police officers," Leslie Hagin, Legislative Director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told a panel of the House Judiciary Committee today. "They can legally break into a home without a warrant or probable cause, and can violently arrest, shackle, imprison and even transport suspects across state lines with impunity. Because they are acting as privatized law enforcement officers, bounty hunter abuse of innocent citizens is law enforcement abuse, plain and simple."

Hagin was testifying in support of H.R. 3168, "The Citizen Protection Act of 1998," which would hold bounty hunters to the same laws and constitutional constraints as police.

The bipartisan bill was introduced February 5 by Representative Asa Hutchinson (R-AR), a former United States Attorney, and is co-sponsored by House Constitution Subcommittee Chairman Charles Canady (R-FL), the Ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers (D-MI), and many others from both parties.

Bounty hunters are the agents of bail bondsmen whose clients have "skipped" bail. Decisions whether to release citizens charged with a crime back into the community after arrest are made by a judicial officer after considering whether the defendant poses a risk of flight. Sometimes a money bond -- bail -- is imposed on the defendant in order to ensure his return to court after release.

If the defendant cannot afford to pay the bail bond himself, he will often turn to a bonding company, or "bondsman," in exchange for a percentage of the bail amount, usually 10 percent. Part of the bond contract is a clause permitting the defendant's recapture by "whatever means necessary" should he fail to appear for trial. If the defendant does not show for trial, the bondsman will lose the full amount of the bail unless the defendant can be returned to custody. Often this is accomplished by "putting a bounty on the head" of the defendant -- in effect, a reward for forcible recapture with little or no consideration for the rights of the suspect, or anyone else (including an innocent bystander) who happens to get in the way.

NACDL President Gerald B. Lefcourt issued a statement from New York in support of the legislation:

"Americans I've spoken with have been shocked to learn that while they are protected from abuse by law enforcement officers, they are not protected from the exact same abuses by bounty hunters violating the same rights, in the same ways, while performing what is essentially a police function. Thankfully, it looks like Congress is on the verge of correcting this dangerous oversight." 

The main purpose of the legislation is to protect innocent citizens from reckless armed goons. It imposes no substantial burdens on the hundreds of law-abiding bail recovery agents. Hagin noted that the bill:

  • Subjects bail bond sureties and bounty hunters to liability for violations of federally protected rights under Federal civil rights laws.
  • Considers any bounty hunter, whether an independent contractor or an employee of a bail bonding company (surety), to be agents of the surety for purposes of liability and requires liability insurance for bail-bond companies who hire bounty hunters. Presently, some less-than-scrupulous bonding companies try to escape their legal obligation to pay for damage to lives and property by reckless bounty hunters by claiming that the agents are "independent contractors" rather than their employees.
  • Establishes a duty on the part of each bail bond surety and bounty hunter who intends to gain custody over a person in a different state to inform local authorities of their intent. This minimal disclosure requirement will help to ensure that the homes of innocent citizens are not broken into and innocent Americans inadvertently kidnapped or injured.

We think this bill gets it right by using legal and market forces to allow the industry to continue, but no longer at the expense of innocent Americans' lives and liberty," Hagin concluded.

The hearing before the Constitution Subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee begins today at 9:30 a.m., in Room 2141, Rayburn House Office Building. The subcommittee will be hearing from several innocent victims of bounty hunter abuses, as well as industry representatives. Also appearing will be R. Gil Kerlikowske, Police Commissioner of Buffalo, NY and President of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), who supports the legislation.

[Click Here] for the text of Leslie Hagin's testimony. 

[Click Here] for other testimony to the Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's approximately 10,000 direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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