Botched attempt to catch bail jumper in Phoenix spurs debate on their broad powers.
In the dead of night, five masked men wearing protective body armor stormed a west Phoenix home, searching for a subject who had skipped bail.
In a hail of gunfire, the bounty hunters botched their mission - raiding the wrong residence and leaving an innocent couple dead. Two men were arrested, and a third is expected to face charges when he is released from the hospital - their accomplices remain at large. The bail jumper being sought, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found.
Their night of terror cast a spotlight on the sometimes shadowy practices of bounty hunters, whose actions are little known to the public at large, yet who are regarded by police as vital aids in law enforcement.
Critics say the time has come for states to rein in what many consider the least regulated arm of law enforcement.
Bounty hunters have operated under the virtually the same rules for more than a century. An 1873 United States Supreme Court ruling gives bounty hunters broad rights when pursuing criminals who skipped bail.
As contract workers for bail-bond firms, they are not required to obtain a search warrant, as are police, nor are they required to notify police in advance of their action. Also, police must get a subject to waive extradition if he flees the state, while a bounty hunter, "throws you in the trunk and brings you back," says Aaron Rosenthal, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Changing the rules
Getting the law changed would be difficult, says Mr. Rosenthal, since it would involve either the Supreme Court overturning the 1873 ruling, or else an action by Congress.
The unique nature of the job - chasing down people who have reneged on a promise to show up in court - is the reason why bounty hunters have so much freedom.
They have a "contractual right of arrest," says Bob Burton, who runs a Tucson, Ariz., academy that trains bounty hunters. When a defendant has bail posted, he signs an agreement stating he may have his house entered or be taken across state lines if he fails to honor the agreement.