How to Become a Bounty Hunter: A Quick Guide
Bounty hunters have several alternative job titles depending on one’s state, and include fugitive recovery agent, bail enforcement agent, bail recovery agent, surety recovery agent, skip tracer, and bail bond enforcer.
While many have watched the popular Dog the Bounty Hunter series as a glimpse into this world, some industry insiders see it as a glamorized view of the career. Still, bounty hunters play a crucial role in apprehending those accused of a crime who are awaiting trial and free on privately-sourced bail, but have skipped their appointed court date. Bounty hunters act as agents of bail bondsmen (also known as bail agents and surety agents) in this process. They are effectively the enforcement arm of the private bail industry. This guide will provide a quick overview of the bail industry and how a bail recovery agent or bounty hunter fits into the system since it is somewhat complicated. For example, Grand Valley State’s Johnson and Stevens note that bounty hunting is:
- Regulated by licensure or registration in 24 states
- Allowed with self-regulation in 18 states
- Prohibited in 4 states
- Not needed in 4 states that have no private bail system
- Undergoing regulatory review or oversight and law changes in several states1
This guide will also provide the steps to become a bounty hunter, training information, and how the process varies by state.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Bounty Hunter?
- The Bail Process and the Parties Involved
- Desired Traits and Characteristics for Bounty Hunters
- Steps for Becoming a Bounty Hunter
- How Is a Fugitive Recovery Agent Paid?
- Bounty Hunter License Information, Requirements, Training, Education, and Regulations
- Maintaining Your Social Work License and Continuing Education
- Additional Resources
What Is a Bounty Hunter?
A bounty hunter is a private agent of the bail bondsman. The considerable powers accorded the bondsman to locate, arrest, detain, and transport in cases of a failure to appear (FTA) are passed to the agent, or bounty hunter. Since the bondsman and bounty hunter are not “state” actors, and further are involved in a private contract, many of the constitutional civil safeguards protecting citizens are not in effect, including unreasonable search and seizure, self-incrimination, right to counsel, and other waived protections normally afforded.1 In some states, bounty hunters are even permitted to enter the subject’s property without a search warrant, giving them greater powers than law enforcement. Bounty hunters thus contract with a bondsman to locate and apprehend those who have skipped out on their court appearance. While some bondsmen maintain in-house recovery agents, most opt to contract for this function. Interestingly, the United States is one of the few countries in the world to allow fugitive recovery in this manner.
The Bail Process and the Parties Involved
When someone is arrested and booked on suspicion of a crime, a court date and, often, some form of bail is set. Since there is a period of weeks or even months between being booked on suspicion of a crime and the court appearance date, the court can choose to release a person with or without bail. “Bail” is a form of insurance — insurance that the defendant (or accused) will appear in court as scheduled. If the required bail amount is paid, the accused is permitted to leave custody. This is where the phrase “bailed out of jail” comes from. The accused typically pays 10-15% of the total bail amount upfront to either the court or a bail bondsman, depending on a state’s particular approach. Assuming the accused subject appears back in court as scheduled, the bond (remaining balance) is forgiven, and the court returns the upfront payment less any small fees. If the services of a private bail bondsman were leveraged in the process, they generally keep the original payment of 10-15% for their services and for assuming the risk. If the subject doesn’t appear in court as scheduled, the full amount of the bond becomes due and an arrest warrant is issued. At this point, the accused is now known as “failure to appear” (FTA) or a bail fugitive. Thus, bail provides incentive or insurance for the accused to meet the scheduled court appearance since the total bail amount is eventually forfeited if he or she fails to appear.
There are two primary scenarios involving the bail process (described below), and only the second one incorporates a bounty hunter.
In the first bail scenario, the accused works directly with the court by paying fees and giving assurances, including collateral, required by the court to post bail. If the subject skips out of or misses the trial date, he or she becomes a fugitive, and governmental law enforcement is responsible for apprehending the individual. Since no private bondsman is involved, neither are bounty hunters.
In the second bail process, the accused works with a private bail bondsman by entering into a contract in exchange for having bail posted. The bondsman secures his fees upfront. Oftentimes family or friends also help in this process by finding the bondsman and likely pledging collateral or co-signing the contract to mitigate the risk taken by the surety agent. When the subject appears in court and is in its custody, the bond (and thus its obligation) is retired, but the bondsman keeps his or her initial fees. In most states, bondsmen are regulated by the state’s department of insurance. Clearly, the bondsman has an interest in ensuring that the accused appear in court, as it otherwise complicates the business deal. Of course, having family or friends with pledged assets involved can also help in this process, as they will likely be encouraging the accused to appear at the court date. If all else fails, the bondsman can seize upon collateralized assets. But first they will likely send out a bounty hunter to track, arrest, and return the accused to court, since this will ultimately retire the bond.
The Professional Bail Association of the United States reports that there are 15,000 bail bondsmen nationwide. Since a segment of those scheduled to appear already seem to lack good judgment to begin with, it is not surprising that some decide to skip the appointed court appearance despite pledges of family and the contract with the bondsman. When a skip happens on a private bail bond, the bond recovery agent or bounty hunter enters the picture.
Desired Traits and Characteristics for Bounty Hunters
A person considering a career as a bounty hunter will be adventurous and appreciate variety in his or her daily job duties. A bounty hunter is not a typical desk job, and potential agents will be adept at problem-solving and possess common sense. Since they are dealing with accused criminals who have fled, bounty hunters may be placed in dangerous situations, so they should be comfortable and able to make sound decisions in high-stress situations. They should possess “street smarts” to be able to locate and apprehend fugitives. Good networking skills will also useful in forming relationships with bondsmen and finding jobs. In addition, a prospective bounty hunter should not have any prior felony conviction or categorization as sex offender per professional associations’ suggestions.*
*In some states that do not regulate but still allow this profession, prior felony conviction is not considered except perhaps by the bondsman in the hiring or contracting process. Note Duane Chapman (a.k.a. “Dog”) is an ex-felon.2
Steps for Becoming a Bounty Hunter
1. Research your state’s regulations.
The bail enforcement agent has to comply with any rules within his or her state, and these vary considerably. We will cover these regulations later in the guide, but some states require licensing, specific coursework, insurance, etc.
2. Complete training or gain relevant experience in the field.
The bounty hunter must be trained in tactics to recover the person skipping out on a court date. This can involve practical experience gained in law enforcement, military, classroom training in some facet of criminal justice, peace officer training, or work as a private investigator or even security guard. Again, some states require training and others leave it to the individual. Bounty hunting can be a dangerous profession, and adequate training, even if not state-mandated, is highly recommended for anyone considering this as a career. Training should cover:
- How to conduct an investigation and to leverage research tools like a private investigator
- Arrest and control techniques
- Use of reasonable force
- Tracking suspects
- Understanding how the bail bond industry operates in the state
For more information see our Training page.
3. Build relationships with bail bondsmen.
Bounty hunters must build a book of business by forming relationships with bail bondsmen to get assignments. They must be able to effectively run their own small business, marketing themselves and their services to get work. They should consider joining a professional association for networking and education. Good bondsmen will understand how to effectively market themselves both online (their own website, professional directories from the associations, yellow page sites, etc.) and offline.
How Is a Fugitive Recovery Agent Paid?
Bounty hunters receive as compensation a portion of the posted bond, typically a fee between 10-25% of the value of the bond, when they successfully find, arrest, and return the accused to court. While this seems to take the profit from the bondsman, the contract signed will usually assign these fees to the recaptured fugitive. To get work from bail bondsmen, a fugitive recovery agent must know the bondsman and must demonstrate to them an ability to get the job done. The best proxy for pay is the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)-tracked category of private detectives and investigators. In May 2014, the BLS reported an average annual salary of $52,880.3 The states of California and Florida employed the highest number of detectives and investigators in May 2014, with 3,640 and 2,430 reported respectively.3 The highest-paid in this industry were reported in the state of Nebraska, where private detectives and investigators earned an average annual salary of $66,800 in May 2014.3
Bounty Hunter License Information, Requirements, Training, Education, and Regulations
There is no uniform approach to bounty hunting across states, but there are four distinct groupings. Four states have eradicated their private bail system altogether. In those states, law enforcement is charged with recovery; there is no need or incentive for private recovery. In four additional states, there is a prohibition on “bounty hunting,” though a licensed private investigator can effectively do the same job in those states. The remaining 42 states allow bounty hunting, with 24 states somehow licensing or regulating the profession to varying degrees. If you want to be compliant and get into this field, our guide will simplify the complex process overall and by state. We include notes directly below the table to help better explain some cases (such as the private investigator route).
Research Bounty Hunter Regulations by State
|State||Does Private Bail System Exist?||Can Recovery Agent be called a Bounty Hunter?||State Department Overseeing||State Method of Oversight||Pre-education required?||Ongoing Education required?||Minimum Age||Prior Felony Preclude|
|Alabama||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Alaska||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Arkansas||Yes||No 1||State Police||Licensure||No||No||18 3||Yes|
|California||Yes*||Yes||None||None||Yes||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Hawaii||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Idaho||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Illinois||No||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2|
|Iowa||Yes||Yes||Public Safety||None||No||No||18||Maybe 5|
|Kentucky||No||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2|
|Maine||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Maryland||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Massachusetts||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Michigan||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Minnesota||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Montana||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Nebraska||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|New Hampshire||Yes||Yes||Public Safety||Licensure||Yes||No||18||Yes|
|New Jersey||Yes||Yes||Public Safety||Licensure||Yes||No||25||Yes|
|New Mexico||Yes||Yes||Public Safety||Licensure||Yes||Yes||18||Yes|
|North Carolina||Yes||No 1||Insurance||Licensure||Yes||Yes||18||Yes|
|North Dakota||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Ohio||Yes||No 1||Public Safety||Licensure||No 6||No||18||Likely|
|Oklahoma||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Oregon||No||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2|
|Pennsylvania||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Rhode Island||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|South Carolina||Yes||No 1||Insurance||Licensure||Yes||Yes||18||Yes|
|Texas||Yes||No 1||Public Safety 1||Licensure 1||No 6||No||18||Yes|
|Utah||Yes||Yes||Public Safety 1||Licensure 1||Yes||Yes||21||Yes|
|Vermont||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
|Virginia||Yes||Yes||Public Safety||Licensure 1||Yes||Yes||21||Yes|
|Wisconsin||No||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2||N/A 2|
|Wyoming||Yes||Yes||None||None||No||No||18 3||Maybe 5|
*In August of 2018, California passed a law to update its private, cash-based bail system in favor of a system that evaluates offenders based on risk. Cash bail is still available for those who opt for it pending the results of a statewide referendum to be held in November 2020 that will determine whether the law to abolish cash bail will be upheld or rescinded.
1. This state prohibits “bounty hunters” but allows select professions to recover bail fugitives; in FL one must be a bail agent (bondsman) or an employee of a bail agency; in AR and OH bail bondsman or licensed PIs are allowed; in North and South Carolina, bail bond runners are allowed; in TX bail bondsmen, peace officers, licensed private investigators, or a commissioned security officer in hire of a licensed guard company are allowed.
2. There is no private bail system in this state, thus no need for bounty hunters. Explore private investigation as an alternative occupation in this state.
3. With no overt licensure or registration in this state, the assumption of age limitation is 18+, but that will depend on the hiring bail agent or bondsman.
4. In addition to felonies, some misdemeanors will preclude.
5. Hiring company will set its own requirements and exclusion (e.g., for a felony or certain classes of misdemeanor).
6. To be a licensed PI, one must first be sponsored by a licensed company for two years.
*All data in this table was verified in October 2015. Since state laws regarding private bail and bail recovery sometimes change, check your state’s laws for latest information.
- National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents: This organization advocates for the industry and seeks to present the professionalism and integrity of the men and women who are fugitive recovery agents.
- Professional Bail Agents of the United States: This national association considers itself “the national voice of the bail agent,” offering networking, education, and liability insurance to its members.
1. The Regulation and Control of Bail Recovery Agents: An Exploratory Study. Brian R. Johnson and Ruth S. Stevens Grand Valley State University Criminal Justice Department: https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=scjpeerpubs
2. International Business Times, “Dog the Bounty Hunter Opens Up:” https://www.ibtimes.com/dog-bounty-hunter-opens-about-his-time-prison-training-next-generation-2014634
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Private Detectives and Investigators: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes339021.htm