By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Bounty hunting--a cheesy but sometimes deadly occupation--has come under scrutiny in Austin, where a bill with law-enforcement backing would restrict who can go after bail "skips" and how the absconders can be arrested.
The aim is to stop would-be goon squads, stoked on reality-TV bounty-hunter busts, from going out and hurting innocent people. Authorities have brought a number of criminal cases over the past year in Dallas and Houston accusing bounty hunters of breaking and entering, kidnapping, and impersonating cops, but they have had a difficult time making them stick.
Introduced last month by state Rep. Helen Giddings, a Dallas Democrat, the legislation was inspired by a recent Dallas case ("Manhunters," Dallas Observer, April 23, 1997). In February, two bounty hunters were acquitted of charges that they carried guns and badges into an Oak Cliff crack house and pretended to be police when they captured a bond-jumping drug suspect.
"We aren't trying to run bounty hunters out of business," says Musa Shezi, a Giddings aide working on the bill. "We just want qualified people who understand the law."
Giddings' proposal would make it a felony, punishable by up to two years in a state jail, to arrest a bond jumper unless one is a licensed police officer or private investigator. Under current law, such an offense is only a misdemeanor, and security guards are also allowed to make the arrests.
"Security guards don't have enough training," Shezi says. "They do not get any extensive law-enforcement training. They don't get continuing education."
Under current procedures--which would still be in effect under the new proposal--a bondsman must obtain a special warrant from a judge before attempting to bring in the absconder. A bail bond is a paid promise that a criminal defendant will appear in court. If the defendant skips, bail agents pay the bail amount or locate their client. For this they hire bounty hunters, who typically work on commission, often 10 percent of the bail amount.
Jay Kimbrough, executive director of the Texas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies, the state licensing authority, says the rather simple change set out in the Giddings bill "eliminates the difficult fact question of who said what to whom at 2 o'clock in the morning. The question now is: Are you licensed to do this kind of work? This becomes a bright line. As it stands, prosecutors don't want to waste the time making misdemeanor cases out of these."
The change would have affected the Dallas County prosecution earlier this year of Roy Morrison, who resigned from the Fort Worth Police Department after he was arrested for possession of child pornography, and Douglas Fox, a bounty hunter from Arlington. They were charged last year with impersonating a peace officer for their alleged actions during an arrest of Edward Allen Wright, 53, in a house on Neptune Street.
Wright, who had jumped bonds worth $50,000 on several drug charges, and another witness in the house claimed they heard pounding and yelling at their door: "Dallas Police Department. Dallas police officers. Open the door!" According to a Dallas County Sheriff's Department report, when the witness opened the door, Fox pointed a pistol at him, said he was a cop, flashed a badge, and then stormed into the residence.
The pair then handcuffed Wright and brought him to a deputy constable, who brought him to jail.
During their trial, Fox testified that he never identified himself as a police officer, so the case became a swearing match in which it was difficult for jurors to reach any conclusions beyond a reasonable doubt.
"These are tough cases," says Dallas prosecutor Christie Williams, who is working on legislative issues. "It's a tough case when it's known criminals testifying against someone accused of a crime."
She says the proposed law makes for a more "fact-specific statute" that could help prosecute cases of bounty hunters run amok. Morrison, for instance, was not a licensed private investigator or a peace officer.
The bill has other provisions that further seek to tighten up the business. First, it would tie bail-bond companies to the people serving their warrants by making them report to state regulators which bounty hunters they have hired. Second, it would flatly prohibit private investigators from entering an absconder's residence without his or her consent.
"This gives some clear lines," says Karen Hewitt, president of the Texas Association of Private Investigators.
"Most of the people I've talked to in this line of work tell me that they usually locate the person, then call law enforcement to make the arrest physically," she says.
The law on this point is somewhat hazy because a century-old federal case, Taylor vs. Taintor, gives bondsmen and their agents free rein to haul in bail-jumpers. Unlike the cops, they don't need to obtain a search warrant.
"We're trying to get this out of the 19th century," says Shezi, Giddings' aide, explaining that Texas law appears to prohibit what Taylor vs. Taintor allows.
Several law-enforcement representatives--the state regulators and district attorneys from Houston and Dallas--testified in favor of the bill at a hearing of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in late March. At least one observer at the hearing saw it as "20/20 legislation...They see a problem identified by the media and start writing."