Bounty hunters may have broad powers, but they can’t act lawlessly

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Should there be some federal oversight or law that better protects innocent people? Opinions differ.

Bounty hunters have extraordinary powers bestowed to them from an 1872 Supreme Court case and in many cases, it is difficult to hold them or companies that hired them legally liable for civil rights violations because they are not government employees.

Opinions differed in the 1990s when Congress unsuccessfully considered new laws to stem misconduct in the bail industry, and they differ today.

The 1872 U.S. Supreme Court case Taylor v. Taintor allows bounty hunters to pursue fugitives across state lines and break and enter his house without a warrant, which are powers that law enforcement do not share. Some view the industry as unregulated and archaic.

A recent raid in Buffalo by two bounty hunters armed with long guns again raises the question if the federal government should intervene with a set of standards or a new law to thwart bad actors.

Bounty hunters argue that the horror stories are too infrequent to require any federal oversight and there are consequences for bad actors who violate the law, anyway. Others believe such action is long overdue because when violations of people’s right do occur, they are serious.

Rob Dick is one of the most famous bounty hunters in the world and an expert of the bail industry. He’s a bail education instructor in California and starred in the reality-TV show “National Geographic Inside: On The Run” and two other related shows in 2008.

Dick said national standards or a federal law that targets bounty hunters wouldn’t work.

“To blanket like a federal law or federal rule that everybody did, I think would almost be impossible. It’s so complex with bail that it’s hard,” he said.

Jonathan Drimmer is a Washington, D.C., attorney who testified to Congress in 1995 when lawmakers failed to pass the Citizen Protection Act. Drimmer doesn’t deny that the bad bounty hunter stories are infrequent.

But the incidents that do get reported involve serious constitutional violations who deserve legal recourse.

“But when it does happen, obviously it is significant invasions of privacy,” he said. “There are threats and fear, and concern, and it does create obvious psychological harm to innocent people.”

Congress tried tackling issue in 1990s

Congress failed to pass the Citizen Protection Act of 1998 (and in 1999) that would have made three major changes that would have impacted the bail industry.

First, the Act would have provided bail companies with expedited background checks by the FBIs for any new employees, including bounty hunters.

Second, the Act would have ensured that bail bond companies could be held legally liable for actions of their bounty hunters.

Finally, the Act would have directed the U.S. Attorney General to establish model guidelines on for states to follow on a voluntary basis.

None of this ever passes.

And at the time, there were a series of incidents in 17 states, including one in Cheektowaga in 1997, in which bounty hunters had violated homeowners’ rights and the victims didn’t have any legal recourse.

In the summer of 1995, Betty Caballero was beaten by a bounty hunter seeking to arrest Ruth Garcia in the State of Texas. Betty miscarried her pregnancy the next day because of the attack.

Caballero did file a lawsuit against the bail company, but a judge determined that the federal civil rights laws did not apply to her case and the bail company, and the bounty hunters, were exonerated.

In April 1997, four men calling themselves ”special agents” barged into a Cheektowaga home with guns looking for a fugitive. One claimed he had a search warrant. Turns out, the home was full of the suspect’s family members, but the suspect was not there and did not live there.

While not an invasion of someone’s civil rights, another bounty hunter related tragedy struck Buffalo a year later.

In 1998, city Police Officer Robert McLellan died on duty after being hit by a car on the Kensington Expressway while assisting Maryland bounty hunters in trying to nab a fugitive who jumped a $50,000 bail bond.

The death resulted in the state legislature passing a law in 2000 that established new oversight and accountability for bounty hunters.

Bounty hunters in New York now must complete basic training, obtain a state license, and notify local law enforcement agencies when they are searching for a fugitive in their jurisdictions.

Drimmer was present for the Congressional hearings and testified on March 12, 1998. He was also interviewed on 60 Minutes for a piece on bounty hunters that aired on Jan. 5, 1997.

“I’d written a fairly extensive academic article on the rights of private fugitives or capture rights of bounty hunters, and it was coming out right at a time where there were a number of high-profile incidents,” Drimmer said.

“And so, the article and me associated with the article ended up getting a fair amount of attention in that mid- to late- 1990s time period and because there were really few other people who had spent much time writing and speaking about the legal component of it, I was asked to come present to Congress on two occasions.”

In his March 1998 testimony, Drimmer said that many bail companies and bounty hunters are responsible professionals, yet there remain, “recurring, frequent, and often tragic abuses at the hands of untrained and reckless bounty hunters that endanger the lives of American citizens nationwide.”

“It is these abuses that must be curtailed, and these bounty hunters who must be controlled, and the duty falls on Congress to act to protect the American public,” he said.

Bounty hunters are not “state actors”

Many victims who have tried suing bail companies or bounty hunters for civil rights violations have failed.

That’s because bounty hunters are not “state actors” or government employees and therefore it becomes difficult to hold them legally liable for constitutional violations.

One recent case in Buffalo has reached a federal courtroom.

On a cold night in January, two bounty hunters armed with long guns had terrified two families out of bed as they demanded access to search the duplex for a bail jumper.

The problem is the bail jumper, who is homeowner Jake Reinhardt’s brother, was not in the house and has never lived there.

In addition, Reinhardt said he initially thought the bounty hunters were police officers because he noticed police cars parked on his street and several officers had surrounded his home in the Seneca-Babcock community.

Reinhardt kept asking the bounty hunters for a search warrant, but they never had one. Police refused to help him, either.

In June, one of the bounty hunters, Dennis J. White, 35, of Buffalo, was charged with 10 misdemeanors, including criminal trespass, menacing in the second degree and endangering the welfare of children. White did not have an active state license at the time of the raid, District Attorney John Flynn said.

In addition, Reinhardt’s family and his tenants upstairs, a family of four, filed a federal civil suit against the bounty hunters and the Buffalo Police Department and the officers involved. The second bounty hunter, who had a mask on during the raid, was not charged because of problems with identifying him.

How did they get around the fact that bounty hunters are not government employees and therefore cannot be sued for constitutional violations?

Anthony Rupp, their attorney argued in court papers that Buffalo Police officers assisted the bounty hunters, therefore they had a right to sue because the police and the police department are government actors.

Drimmer said he has seen these types of cases before, and the profiles of each case often have similarities.

“As apparently in this case, and again, this kind of profile where you do have a search for somebody believing he is in a home where he isn’t, and an entry without consent, that is a fairly typical profile when things do go wrong,” Drimmer said.

Drimmer also said that he believes police presence for these types of situations is not a bad idea, the police must do their due diligence to ensure that what they are doing is appropriate and reasonable.

“Remember, we are often dealing in these kinds of situations with fugitives who have committed crimes and if they are fugitives, there’s at least a possibility that they don’t want to come back,” Drimmer said.

As a result of the Reinhardt case and subsequent reporting by News 4 Investigates, the Buffalo Police Department did adopt a new policy that prohibits police officers from assisting bounty hunters in any operations to nab suspects and from being visibly present during such raids and requires bounty hunters to fill out forms that includes their contact information.

Federal standards needed?

There are no federal standards for bounty hunters and some states have a hodge-podge of rules, while others have none.

A 1999 Vanderbilt Law Review Study concluded that while the incidence of abusive bounty hunting is, at worst, infrequent, further regulation of the bail bond industry would stem future misconduct.

“In lieu of a constitutional approach, states should legislate to control bounty hunting in accordance with local need. Licensing requirements, mandatory insurance, and statutory provisions preventing “unreasonable” searches and seizures are all advisable,” the study concluded.

“However, in no event is it appropriate to endanger the personal safety of bounty hunters or the economic solvency of bail bondsmen. Without them, bail skyrockets, innocents are forced to linger in overcrowded jails, and the Eighth Amendment rights of defendants are impinged.”

Drimmer said the efforts of Congress and others to pass federal intervention in the 1990s had somehow lost momentum.

“My big issue with the industry is that it goes without any kind of oversight or scrutiny, that it operates completely below the radar of most states, of most counties within the states,” Drimmer said.

Now, he said, states have a patchwork of regulations.

“And again, particularly where you’re dealing with people who cross state lines and you have bounty hunters who are operating in multiple state jurisdictions where the laws may be different from state to state and so I do think some type of federal law would continue to make sense.”

Dick, the bounty hunter, said because the rules are different from state to state would make it difficult to have one federal law that fits all.

He said those charged with crimes or their families sign a contract with a bail company that acts like a get out of jail free card. But the federal decision from 1872 doesn’t mean bounty hunters can act lawlessly.

“That’s why Taylor versus Taintor had such broad powers because a person puts up a lot,” Dick said.  “Mom and Dad could put up a house and junior just being stupid or back on drugs and not going along with the program, there’s a lot at stake. So, they have broad powers to fix that. But again, there’s just as many laws that you can be charged with if you don’t play by the rules.”

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