Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bounty Hunters Need Training

It's time for the Washington Legislature to revisit the issue of bounty hunters to ensure that they are properly trained.

The Legislature took a positive step in 2004 when the House and Senate unanimously passed House Bill 2313 to set minimal expectations for the bail bondsmen industry.

It's a tough job.

When a person is booked into jail, the defendant generally turns to a bail bond agency to post a bond to guarantee that the defendant will appear for future court dates. A friend or relative of the defendant usually pays a premium, generally 10 percent of the bond amount, for this service, as well as providing collateral such as a lien on a home. If the defendant does not show up as scheduled for court, the defendant is considered a fugitive from justice and the bail bond company is liable to pay the entire amount of the bond. A grace period is generally granted so the employees of the bonding agency — so-called bounty hunters — can try to track down the defendant and get that person back before a judge.

It's dangerous work because bounty hunters are searching for fugitives who don't want to go back to jail.

In the 2004 legislation, lawmakers established a system of mandatory licensing for bounty hunters. The law requires prior notice to local law enforcement agencies including identifying clothing information when bail bond recovery agents make a planned forced entry to apprehend a fugitive.

The Legislature said bounty hunters must be at least 21 years of age and cannot have been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years. Bounty hunters must have 12 hours of training.

And with that minimal training, Washington's bounty hunters are using firearms, handcuffs, batons and stun guns to apprehend bail jumpers and bring them back to justice. Their training pales in comparison with that of law enforcement officers who use similar tools to apprehend criminals.

The state's oversight once a bounty hunter gets a license is minimal, and that's why legislative remedies are warranted.

For one thing, Sherri Lonsbery, manager of the state's bail bond licensing program, said the standards for what's an offense of a bail bond company are unclear. "We don't regulate bad behavior," Lonsbery said. "We don't regulate their actions once they're licensed, necessarily. If they break down the door to the wrong house, (state law) doesn't say they are responsible to replace that door."

Washington requires bounty hunters to receive training, but doesn't specify what most of it should entail or establish a certification process for trainers. And the state doesn't endorse trainers who teach bounty hunter skills.

Most other states that have licensing requirements, such as Virginia, also regulate the trainers of aspiring bounty hunters, said Mel Barth, executive director of the National Association of Bail Enforcement Agents.

Barth said he was surprised that Washington doesn't do so. "That's a little crazy, to be honest with you," he said. "I don't approve of that."

Prior to 2004, anyone could call themselves a bounty hunter and go after fugitives. The legislation that was passed that year helped bring bounty hunters under state control. It was only a start. It's time for the Legislature to set standards of acceptable behavior for bonding companies and to put licensing requirements for trainers in place.

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