'I hunt men': meet the self-ordained officers of the bail-bond industry.
"I hunt men. I am a bounty hunter," says Edward (not his real name), sipping ginseng soda in the corner of Al Graf Bail Bonds, a cramped San Francisco office adorned with framed photos of "old man Graf" shown posing with everyone from a young Governor Reagan to Don Rickles. Edward rubs his huge palms across his face and explains his trade.
His prey are "skips," people out on bail who skip their court dates. Edward hunts his quarry by phone, using tips from disgruntled ax-girlfriends and desperate junkies. Like any hunter, he spends long hours lying in wait, usually parked in a car or huddled in the corner of some fugitive's favorite bar. "I know people. I know the streets," says the laconic Edward, who, along with bounty hunting, has an unspecified "delivery business" on the side.
Unlike police officers, Edward and other bounty hunters can search houses or vehicles without a warrant, cross state lines. and carry unlicensed weapons. Nor is there any oversight board or form of regulation to ensure that bounty hunters do not abuse their awesome legal powers--which, it seems, they quite often do.
Bounty hunters are adjuncts of the bail industry or "the bail-surety system," a private branch of American criminal justice. When someone is arrested, a judge usually sets bail--a sum of money paid as insurance that the defendant will return to court. A defendant with sufficient money can post the entire amount and receive a refund when the case is resolved. For defendants who lack sufficient cash, bail bond agents will post bail for a standard 10 percent fee plus collateral equal to the value of the bond.
"Say you got a guy on $20,000 bail for selling narcotics," explains Gene DiDominico of Al Graf Bail Bonds. "Now, either this guy's mom comes up with the whole twenty grand or she gives us $2,000 and we put up the rest. It's that, or you wait around on the fifth floor at 850 Bryant [the jail], wearing plastic slippers and orange pajamas for three months till your trial date."
In desperation, many defendants call three or four bail agents. The one who gets to the jail first collects the nonrefundable 10 percent deposit, plus a handsome "processing fee" to cover overhead. Usually, the person on bail shows up at court. So "writing bail" is generally a low-risk business. But the haste of competition can cause bail agents to do inadequate background checks, or to fail to verify the defendants'collateral.
Sometimes, the defendant will skip court and flee. In most of those cases, the defendant, or "skip," can be found "stoned, at home in front of the TV," says one bail agent. But if the skip is really on the run and is not rearrested within 180 days (or in some states ninety or thirty days), the agent who posted the bail will lose the money and "take a hit," as it is known in bond-agent lingo.
"You got to live with some risks to make a buck," says DiDominico, rocking in an old swivel chair. Speaking of risks, DiDominico produces a pistol from one of his desk drawers. "You get a lot of irate freaks coming in here around 1:00 A.M. So you got to be prepared."
"Damn it, man, put that thing away," says Edward, adding that he "always carries a nine-inch-barreled .44."
The nearly carte-blanche powers of the bounty hunter serve a clear economic function. Bounty hunters act as enforcers for money lenders--the bail agents. Bounty hunting is about protecting private investment. Without the leverage provided by "bad-ass" bounty hunters, the financial risks for bail agents and their underwriters, the insurance companies, would be much higher.
Bounty hunting is market-driven--and market-serving--law enforcement. The bail industry acts as a privatized arm of the judicial system. As such, the bail industry is enjoying renewed support from rightwing criminologists. Lobbyists for bail agents are touting recent studies from the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, Texas, to argue for a massive expansion of the bail industry on the grounds that it is a super-efficient market mechanism for managing the criminal classes.
"If the bail system were expanded," says Terry Fowler, a spokesperson for the California Bail Agents Association, "thousands of crimes could be prevented and thousands of fugitives would be apprehended. We've got [Republican] Congressman [Frank] Riggs working on it." Fowler's organization has also recently shepherded several bail-expanding amendments through the California Assembly. "I think people have had enough of O.R.," says Fowler, referring to "release-on-own-recognizance" programs, which allow any defendant the court deems trustworthy to get out of jail without paying bail.
"The vast majority of crimes are committed by people who are out on O.R. and then never come back to court. Public law enforcement just doesn't bother tracking these people down," says Fowler. "But if they were on bail, there'd be a financial incentive to bring them in. The bail industry, as part of the private sector, is just much more efficient."
"Sorry, that's totally untrue," says Robert Schwab of San Mateo Pretrial Services, the nonprofit group that runs San Mateo County's recognizance program. "Most crimes are definitely not committed by people who skip on O.R. But the bail agents would like you to think that. You see, the bondsmen and the big surety insurance companies have launched a national campaign to discredit O.R. They have a group called Strike Back, and they commission their own studies, treating the cooked statistics as independent facts," says Schwab.
Proponents of releasing defendants on their own recognizance cite data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that show more than 40 percent of all arrested felons in the nation's seventy-five largest counties receive an offer of bail. Many cannot afford the bail agent's fee and remain in jail.
"As much as the bond agents may bemoan O.R.," says Herb Kutchins, who teaches social work at Sacramento State University in California, "it was the original form of release in medieval English law. Either you were held or you got out. There was no buying your way to temporary freedom. Bail grew out of the habitual bribing that went along with the original O.R. system. Bail is the official codification of what used to be illegal."
Kutchins, who helped establish and run San Francisco's recognizance project, says that the bail system is still open to bribery and corruption. Bail agents appear to agree, though they hasten to deny personal culpability. "You get people wanting to pay their fee with sex, or with drugs, or who want to pay fees in advances. But we don't do that," says one San Francisco bail agent.
"We can't recommend lawyers, that's illegal--has to be, otherwise there would be kickbacks right and left," says DiDominico.
But these days political discussions of bail rarely focus on its built-in invitations to corruption. Instead, bail is seen as the lean, mean private-sector method of crime control.
It's early evening and Oakland bounty hunter Thomas Truso is driving back home across the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
"It's like this," says Truso. "There are very few--actually there are no--regulations on how and when you arrest. If you have the paperwork, you own that skip's body and you do whatever you have to. to catch them." Truso is a licensed bail agent and a licensed private investigator--rare among California's 700-plus bounty hunters. I write good bail for people--I've been doing this for twenty years," says Truso, whose ads can be found in the Yellow Pages.
But I'll tell you, I know some criminals out there who work as bounty hunters." says Truso. "The whole thing really needs to be regulated."
Currently, there is no formal licensing process for bounty hunters in California or any other state. Sixty-five California bounty hunters are informally licensed through various private bounty-hunting schools. But many are "cowboys"--unlicensed, untrained, and largely unregulated freelance mercenaries in the war on crime. They make their own hours, not to mention their own uniforms and badges, which say anything from "undercover agent" to "bail enforcement." Many have histories of violence, yet all bounty hunters operate with more powers to search and arrest than a police SWAT team.
Thanks to three obscure paragraphs in an 1873 U.S. Supreme Court case, Tailor v. Tantor, bounty hunters have the authority to follow their prey anywhere; break into homes or vehicles; cross state lines; arrest and imprison a bail fugitive for up to forty-eight hours; and in California--thanks to section 12031 (k) of the penal code--carry unlicensed, concealed weapons.
According to Tailor v. Tantor, being free on bail is "a continuation of the original imprisonment." The bond agents in effect become jailers and, "whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him [the skip] and deliver him up in their discharge. . . . They may exercise their rights in person or by agent."
"It's a crazy business," says San Francisco public defender Jeff Brown. "The powers of a bondsman are really an anachronism in the law."
But it is the modern expansion of imprisonment that makes writing bail and bounty hunting big business.
In 1994 bounty hunters--in the service of the nation's 8,500 bail agents--arrested more than 24,000 bail-fugitives. California has 1,350 such agents employed by 400 bail-bond companies, which make a $110 to $120 million profit annually, according to the California Bail Agents Association. That's 10 percent of the $1.2 billion worth of bail written in California each year. Nationally, bail is a $4-billion-a-year industry, netting $400 million a year in profits, with California, Florida, and Texas the national leaders.
Behind the seedy and surreal front line of bail-bond agents and bounty hunters is a battery of large, sometimes publicly traded, mainstream insurance houses. Bankers Insurance, Amwest Surety Insurance, and American Bankers are three of the better known of the twelve companies that control the nation's bail-insurance market and reap its yearly profit of $40 million.
These surety-insurance companies sell insurance to the bail-bond agents. If an agent takes a hit of $50,000 and does not have that cash on hand, the insurance company pays the state from a fund into which the bail agent has made regular payments.
For every bond an agent writes, 1 percent of the total goes to the surety insurer. So on a $100,000 bail, the insuring company receives $1,000.
None of this lucrative, and relatively risk-free, trade would be possible without the shadow of the bounty hunter, always ready to "enforce" bail.
"There has to be some mechanism of compliance, and these bail-jumpers are breaking the law," explains Robert Nairin of the National Association of Bail Insurance Companies.
Back at Graf Bail Bonds, the 280pound Edward, done with his ginseng soda, recounts a recent arrest. "I had to slap this junkie bitch around, because she tried to run. Women are the tough ones," complains Edward. "Bystanders always think you are trying to hurt them."
Force and abuse are part of the job. In recent years, heavy-handed bounty hunters have shown up as defendants in a plethora of bizarre and outrageous crimes.
Last June, four self-described bounty hunters in San Diego allegedly shot twenty-one-year-old Scott Radebaugh, whom they wrongly assumed was their fugitive. But police arrested only one of the four bounty hunters.
In Connecticut, a recovery agent currently faces charges for attempted murder. That bounty hunter allegedly started shooting before confirming his target's identity. In Mississippi, two bounty hunters were charged with extortion after allegedly impersonating police officers, driving a car with out-of-date Alabama plates, and demanding free gasoline and drinks from local filling stations.
These self-ordained lawmen have also been arrested for shooting each other, kidnapping, and possession of narcotics. It is quite common for bounty hunters to be charged with trespassing for smashing in the wrong doors and ransacking the wrong apartments.
More frightening than the tales of excess are the legal brutalities that go unpunished. In one recent case, a bounty hunter from Arkansas--a state that claims to stringently regulate its bail-recovery agents--nabbed his skip in Chicago, threw the fugitive in the trunk of a car, and drove all the way back to Little Rock.
In their defense, bounty hunters point out that their job requires violent self-defense. Truso--who says he has been stabbed, kicked in the head while driving, run off the road by drug dealers, and shot at numerous times--insists that most bounty hunters play by the rules.
Truso says he rarely uses force or kicks down doors. Instead, like many bounty hunters, he gains entrance by posing as a pizza-delivery man, a utilities meter-reader, or an employee of the United Parcel Service. For good measure, Truso also carries a gun, pepper spray, leg irons, a stun gun, and a baton.
"Most skip chasers are really worried about lawsuits," says Truso, who himself lost $100,000 in legal fees during two years of litigation. "I was making a pickup and the guy tackled me and my gun went off, by mistake, hitting him in the leg," says Truso. "It was a mistake. But man, that court case was hell. So now I am extremely careful."
He has another worry as well. "White cops out in places like Orinda really don't like black bounty hunters with guns," says Truso, who is black. He says that San Francisco cops, on the other hand, are often helpful and provide backup for dangerous arrests. But not in the suburbs. "I mean, if you're black they're just waiting for an excuse to do you."
There was a time when the bail industry was on the defensive. In the late 1960s, civil libertarians, leftwing criminologists, and community activists attacked the bail system, charging that it was class-biased usury, and an unfair burden on falsely accused defendants. Leading legal scholars, such as the eminent Caleb Foote of Berkeley, even argued that bail was inherently unconstitutional. Such pressure from the left led to the rise of bail-free release.
In 1980, Jerry Brown, then governor of California, and his legislative allies pushed through an experimental law that allowed defendants to pay a refundable 10 percent of their bail directly to the court, completely bypassing the bondsman. Brown's legal-affairs adviser, J. Anthony Kline, announced, "We're not talking about infringing on the bail bondsmen. We're talking about wiping them out." By 1985, the experiment was over, and the bail system was safe.
"You know, the reformers were right. The bail system is unfair," muses legendary Sacramento bounty hunter, car-racing enthusiast, and one-time mayoral candidate Leonard Padilla. "But the sad thing is, bail and bounty hunting are the only parts of the criminal-justice system that are self-financing--they don't cost the taxpayers a red cent. And nowadays that's pretty damn attractive to most politicians."
Christian Parenti is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics and teaches sociology at The New College of California in San Francisco. He wrote "Pay Now, Pay Later" in the July issue of The Progressive.
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|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1997|
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