The History of Bounty Hunting

Officially known as Bail Enforcement Agents, bounty hunters have played an interesting role in the legal system throughout the centuries. Let’s take a look at the cast of players.

The History of Bounty Hunting

What is a Bounty Hunter?

Long before Dog the Bounty Hunter became a household name, bounty hunters have been hired by a bail bondsman to find a person who has “skipped” town and failed to show up for a court appearance. These bail enforcement agents are tasked with capturing the alleged fugitive and forcing him/her to face the music. In the United States today, bounty hunters are represented by the National Association of Fugitive Recovery,


The Difference Between a Bounty Hunter and a Vigilante

In modern days of crime hunting, a bounty hunter is a trained individual with a civil contract to locate a fugitive for a bail bondsman. A vigilante, in contrast, is a civilian who decides to take the law into their own hands in an attempt for justice. Vigilantes have no legal authority, although they may have altruistic motives. Perhaps the most famous vigilante of all is the fictitious Robin Hood. He stole from the rich to give to the poor, although it was not within his legal rights to do so. 


Bail Bondsman

This is a person or an agency who pays a bond to the court on the behalf of a defendant, allowing him/her to get out of jail until their court date.

History of Bounty Hunters

Dating back to 13th century England, instead of setting a monetary bail amount to keep an accused person accountable for their court date, a person was assigned as bail. This person served as a custodian for the accused and could be punished if the alleged criminal bailed. Sometimes the custodian would be hanged for the crimes of the accused in the event s/he couldn’t be located.


In the United States, the concept of bail as a person was carried over until Habeas Corpus was passed by British Parliament in 1679. At that time, the courts made the switch and set a monetary bail vs using a person as bail. And thus passed a huge sigh of relief from anyone who was ever willing to vouch for a friend and ended up taking the heat.


Before the laws were changed in the 1600s, a bounty hunter could be anyone who took action when they saw a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster in a saloon. Monetary rewards offered an incentive for citizens to get to work and hunt down fugitives to bring them to justice. Can you imagine seeing a wanted poster in a Nevada casino today? Things have come a long way in Vegas since the first bars and saloons of the early 1900s!


Over 100 years after Habeas Corpus, the U.S. Constitution passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 so the court couldn’t set an astronomical bail amount, and it helped determine what types of crimes could be eligible for bail.


In 1873, the role of bounty hunters really started to take shape; at this time they could be hired by bail bondsmen to find fugitives. Bounty hunters could cross state lines, enter homes without warrants and pretty much do whatever it took to bring a fugitive back alive. Up until now, bounty hunters were considered law enforcement.


By 1966, the Bail Reform Act was passed, which allowed prisoners to be released from jail on a small, monetary bail amount. If a prisoner was deemed a high flight risk, the 1984 Bail Reform Act allowed courts to deny bail requests in order to keep the accused behind bars until their court date.

Are Bounty Hunters Law Enforcement?

Bounty hunters have been known to operate outside the law because they are working based on a civil contract between themselves and a bail bondsman. They are no longer considered law enforcement officers, so they can employ different tactics for recovering a fugitive than a traditional police officer. For example, a bounty hunter can enter a fugitive’s property without a warrant, whereas that is not permissible for a law enforcement officer. Bounty hunters can also cross state lines, whereas law enforcement would have to hand off a manhunt to local authorities when pursuing a fugitive.


As a result of not being affiliated with the police department, bounty hunters don’t have the liability protection that police officers do, and anyone approached by a bounty hunter has the right to refuse questioning and detainment. Today, bounty hunting is only legal in the United States and in the Philippines. 

How Bounty Hunters Get Paid

Common practice is for a bail bondsman to pay a bounty hunter 10% of the bail amount. So if an individual has a bail of $100,000, a bounty hunter can earn a $10,000 commission. If the bounty hunter is unsuccessful in delivering the fugitive to the bail bondsman, the bounty hunter is not responsible for the bail amount. The bondsman still owes the bail money to the court for failed appearances. It’s reported that bounty hunters catch about 90% of fugitives who have skipped out on bail. 

Laws Across States

Although bounty hunters are prevalent throughout the United States, it’s not a legal practice everywhere.


States in which bounty hunting is illegal:


  • Washington D.C.

  • Illinois

  • Kentucky

  • North Carolina

  • Oregon

  • South Carolina

  • Wisconsin


These states have also done away with bail bonds entirely.


States that allow bounty hunting without a license/training:


  • Maine

  • Massachusetts

  • Michigan

  • Montana

  • Nebraska

  • New Jersey

  • Rhode Island

  • Wyoming


Ideally, a bounty hunter should undergo training prior to embarking on their career, whether their state requires it or not. They should know the ins and outs of bail bonds, the court system, and even have a concealed carry permit along with personal protection know-how. After all, bounty hunters aren’t usually after someone who merely violated littler laws; bounty hunters are usually looking for people charged with larceny, kidnapping, fraud, or even murder.

Requirements to Become a Bail Enforcement Agent

The stipulations for becoming a bail enforcement agent do vary by state, but many common requirements include the following:


  • US or naturalized citizen

  • High school diploma or GED

  • One year of state residency 

  • Valid state driver’s license

  • No felony convictions


Depending on the state, you can be as young as 18 when starting a career in bail enforcement, while some states have an age requirement of 25 years.


Bounty Hunter Skills


Boba Fett might lead you to believe you have to be highly skilled in martial arts in order to be a successful bounty hunter, but that’s not usually the case these days. Modern bail enforcement agents utilize a slightly different skill set than the fictional bounty hunters of the Star Wars franchise.


  • Digital and physical tracking skills

  • Firearm training

  • Self-defense skills

  • Proper use of force training

  • Entry and seizure training

  • Knowledge of fugitive transport

  • Familiarity with state laws

  • Knowledge of dress code enforced by local Commissioner of Public Safety


Additionally, bounty hunters should attend continuing education trainings to stay current on their state’s requirements for the job. While you can’t act as a bounty hunter in all fifty states, you can serve a similar role in law enforcement, or as a private investigator. This is the way to legally pursue a career that centers around tracking fugitives and bringing them to justice.


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