How to Become a Bounty Hunter: A Quick Guide
For many, the words “bounty hunter” bring to mind the popular TV series, Dog the Bounty Hunter, but industry insiders say the show provides a glamorized and unrealistic view of the career. In order to understand what a bounty hunter is, you have to first understand some other terms: bail bondsman and skip. A bail bondsman (also known as a bail bond agent or surety agent) pledges money or property as bail in exchange for the appearance of the defendant in court. A skip is a defendant (someone who has been accused of a crime) who has been freed on privately-sourced bail and has missed their appointed court date (or skipped bail).
A bounty hunter is an independent contractor hired by the bail bondsman to locate, apprehend, and return the fugitive to the court system. Bounty hunters are effectively the enforcement arm of the private bail industry. They have several alternative job titles depending on the state, which include fugitive recovery agent, bail enforcement agent, bail recovery agent, surety recovery agent, skip tracer, and bail bond enforcer. 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.
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
- Steps for Becoming a Bounty Hunter
- Salary Information
- Bounty Hunter Traits
- Bounty Hunter Information by State
- Additional Resources
What Is a Bounty Hunter?
A bounty hunter is a private agent of the bail bondsman. The considerable powers accorded a bondsman to locate, arrest, detain, and transport in cases of a failure to appear in court (FTA) are passed to the agent, or bounty hunter, who is typically an independent contractor hired to locate and apprehend defendants who have skipped out on their court appearance. Since the bondsman and bounty hunter are not state employees, many of the constitutional civil safeguards protecting citizens are not in effect, including reasonable search and seizure, self-incrimination, right to counsel, and other 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. 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 minus 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 in exchange 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.
1. Public Bail
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.
2. Private Bail
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 their 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. 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 are invested in ensuring that the accused appears in court. 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.
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 (PI) or 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 private investigators
- 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.
People considering a career as a bounty hunter should be adventurous and appreciate variety in their daily job duties. A bounty hunter is not a typical desk job, and potential agents should be adept at problem-solving and using 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. Good networking skills will also be useful in forming relationships with bondsmen and finding contract work. In addition, a prospective bounty hunter should not have any prior felony conviction or be categorized as a sex offender per professional associations’ suggestions. Note that in some states that do not regulate but still allow this profession, prior felony convictions are 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
Bounty Hunter Traits
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. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track the pay of bounty hunters, its best job category of proxy is the category of private detectives and investigators. In May 2020, the BLS reported an average annual salary of $60,100.3 The states of California and Virginia had the highest employment level in detectives and investigators in May 2020, with 3,340 and 2,510 reported respectively.3 The top paying states for this industry were reported in the state of Arkansas, where private detectives and investigators earned an average annual salary of $77,980 in May 2020.3
Bounty Hunter Information by State
There is no uniform approach to bounty hunting across states, but there are four distinct groupings. Some states have eradicated their private bail system altogether. There are also states in which law enforcement is charged with recovery, so there is no need or incentive for private recovery. In others, there is a prohibition on bounty hunting, though licensed private investigators in those states are permitted to effectively do the same job in those states. The remaining states allow bounty hunting, with 24 states licensing or regulating the profession to varying degrees. All data in this table was verified in October 2015. Since state laws regarding private bail and bail recovery often change, check your state’s laws for the latest information.
|State||Private Bail System?1||Can Recovery Agent be called a Bounty Hunter?1||State Department Overseeing||State Method of Oversight||Education Required?1||Ongoing Education Required?1||Minimum Age2||Prior Felony Preclude3|
|New Hampshire||Yes||Yes||Public Safety||Licensure||Yes||—||18||Yes|
|New Jersey||Yes||Yes||Public Safety||Licensure||Yes||—||25||Yes|
|New Mexico||Yes||Yes||Public Safety||Licensure||Yes||Yes||18||Yes|
See table notes at bottom of page.
- National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents (NAFRA): 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 (PBUS): This national association considers itself “the national voice of the bail agent,” offering networking, education, and liability insurance to its members.
1. “–” indicates No or None.
2. “18+” indicates that the assumed age limitation is this state 18+, but that will depend on the hiring bail agent or bondsman.
3. “Maybe” indicates that the hiring company will set its own requirements and exclusion (e.g., for a felony or certain classes of misdemeanor).
4. In November 2020, California passed a law that ended cash bail for defendants who cannot afford to pay.
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