Tracking down criminals or fugitives is part of the job for sworn law enforcement officers. When private citizens do this work, though – especially for money – they go by a different title, like bounty hunter. Generally, bounty hunters are a part of the bail bonds system often used in the field of criminal justice. Bounty hunter is an exciting and satisfying career path for people who want to see justice served without necessarily being part of a law enforcement agency. Bounty hunters go by many different – usually, more official – job titles, including bail enforcement agent, bail recovery agent, fugitive recovery agent and bail runner.

Where Bounty Hunters Fit Into the Criminal Justice System

When an individual is charged with a crime, that person may be taken into custody until it is time for the trial to occur. However, due to the many demands on the criminal justice system, it can take weeks or even months for that to happen, with the accused locked up all that time. In many cases, the person charged with the crime can essentially buy their freedom during that time if they are able to pay bail, or an amount of money usually set by a judge that acts as collateral to make sure the accused shows up in court.

Bail amounts can vary depending on the severity of the crime, but because it is not a matter to take lightly, the amount is often at least in the range of thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even a million dollars. Since defendants and their families often can’t afford the full cost of bail, they may turn to a bail bonds agency for a special kind of loan. These loans can be lucrative for agencies, but they are also risky. If the defendant fails to appear in court, sometimes referred to as “skipping bail,” the lender stands to lose a lot of money. To recapture the defendant so they can get their money back, bail bond agencies hire bounty hunters.

The primary responsibility of a bounty hunter is to bring the bail skipper back into custody to face a court proceeding. Within this responsibility are many different job duties. A bounty hunter must first figure out where the defendant has gone, which is itself a considerable challenge. The bounty hunter must then physically recover the individual, a responsibility that could become hazardous if the accused becomes violent.

Although the job titles are similar, it’s important to distinguish between bail bond agents, who make the loan of bail money available, and bail enforcement agents, or bounty hunter. Bounty hunters aren’t involved in the financial aspects of the bail transaction but get paid for recovering fugitives.

Bounty Hunters vs. Law Enforcement Roles

Generally, overburdened local law enforcement agencies don’t have the resources to find individuals who fail to show up for court, so bounty hunters, hired by bail bond agents, take on that role as part of the private sector. Bounty hunters may use some of the same strategies as police investigators – which is one reason why the profession is sometimes considered a niche within the private investigator occupation – and, like police officers, seek to bring the individual into custody.

The biggest difference between bounty hunters and police officers is legal authority. Bounty hunters are not sworn police officers and may face criminal charges themselves if, in trying to apprehend a fugitive, they break laws related to privacy, burglary or physical assault. On the other hand, in many states, bounty hunters are still unregulated, and they may not be bound by the same procedures and protocols required of police officers. Bounty hunters work within the criminal justice system but are part of the private sector. Generally, the purpose of a bounty hunter’s work is not bringing someone to justice but rather recouping the financial investment of the bail bonds agency – although many bounty hunters enjoy knowing that they are contributing to the work of the justice system.

Although they may not be officially under the employment of a law enforcement agency, bounty hunters are legally required to be licensed in some states.

The Best Qualities and Skills for Bounty Hunters

Although you may need to meet licensing requirements as a bounty hunter, your skills and personal strengths are often more important than formal education or experience for success in this role. You must have strong investigative and deductive skills to begin the process of tracking down a fugitive. Today’s bounty hunters often rely on technology to start their research, looking to social media, databases and other digital tools to narrow down the search for a fugitive’s whereabouts, so being tech-savvy and having strong computer skills is crucial. However, it isn’t enough to merely identify potential hiding places. Bounty hunters also need the physical stamina, as well as the patience, to do to the legwork of staking out or surveilling a suspected hideout.

When it comes to bringing in the defendant, you may think physical strength is the only quality that matters, but that’s not the case. Avoiding a violent confrontation is in everyone’s best interest. The best bounty hunters use interpersonal skills to persuade a defendant to come back without a fight.

Additional Resources

How Do I Get Licensed to Become a Bounty Hunter?

Is Being a Bounty Hunter Really How It Looks on TV?

How Do I Become a Private Detective?