The shooting deaths of two young men working for their father as bail bondsmen Thursday night have thrown into sharp relief TV and movie-fed notions of bounty hunters as legally sanctioned enforcers against a less glamourous reality.
Q: So what does a bail agent actually do?
A: Essentially, local bail agents and industry officials said Friday, bail bond companies and agents work with families to first bail defendants out of jail, then to make sure they make their court appearances.
"On a day-to-day basis, I'm getting phone calls at all hours of the day and night. If they're not from the defendants themselves, in custody, it's family members," said Dale Miller longtime bail agency owner and spokesman for the California Bail Agents Association. "They want to get their people out of jail. I have them sign a contract saying (the co-signer) will help get them back to court."
When someone is arrested a judge sets a bail amount. The family or the defendant can contract with a bail bond company to pay about 10 percent of that amount to have the person released from jail. If the person does not make court dates, the bail bond company is responsible for the full bail amount. If all goes smoothly and the person shows up in court, the bail bond company will get most of that 10 percent back.
The job occasionally requires a tolerance for danger. But usually, work in the bail bond industry involves a broad understanding of the courts system and keen risk assessment skills, Miller said, to ensure that he's not bailing out people who are likely to flee.
"What I find I'm doing (a lot of the time) is filling in the blanks so people have less fear about going to court," he said.
Amanda Esposito, owner of Bakersfield's Patriot Bail Bonds, said "a lot of the work is clerical," dealing with surety companies, which insure the bail in the event that it must be forfeited to the court.
"It's a job and it pays the bills," she said. "The majority of the time, it's not uncomfortable."
Q: Then where do so-called "bounty hunters" come in?'
A: First of all, Esposito said, she prefers the term "bail recovery agent."
"They're not called bounty hunters anymore," she said.
And bail recovery agents, also known as bail fugitive recovery agents, are the people who track down and arrest defendants when they don't show up for court.
Bail agents have a financial incentive to find "skippers," because the bail bond company is on the hook for thousands of dollars.
While some bail bond companies have designated in-house recovery agents and others contract out the work to private investigators, most licensed bail agents double as recovery agents.
Esposito said times when she has to don her recovery agent hat are "few and far between." But, she added, "it's really the recovery that becomes dangerous."
But Esposito stressed that if she knows she may be headed into a dangerous situation, she asks for law enforcement support.
The vast majority of the time, Miller said, people who miss their court dates "overslept, they forgot -- and that can be cleaned up with phone calls."
Even in cases where people have to be found, there's often no problem, said Larissa Kosits, a staff attorney for the state Department of Insurance, which licenses bail agents.
"It's such a small percentage of people that do skip and have to be chased down in the night," she said.
Miller said he tries to cut skippers off at the pass by avoiding potentially problematic clients altogether.
"Different bail agents have different strengths," he said. "Some people are good at finding people and bringing them back," he said. "I have other skills that make it so I don't have to do that quite so often."
Still, he said, Thursday night's "very unusual" incident served as "something that reminds us how dangerous (bail fugitive recovery) can be."
Q: OK, bounty hunters aren't cops. But they also sometimes go around apprehending people. How is this system regulated?
A: It's complicated. Although the state Department of Insurance regulates bail agents -- there are about 3,000 in California -- there are no specific licensing requirements for bail fugitive recovery agents.
There are laws that require bail agents to complete 12 hours of bail law-related training courses before becoming licensed, then they must complete another six hours every year of continuing education. And, added Keith Kuzmich, chief of the state's licensing services division, there's an assembly bill to increase the pre-license training hours from 12 to 20.
But, he stressed, "We regulate the bail agents -- not the bail recovery."
Local bail agent Jim Conners said he did much of his own recovery for about 25 years.
He said he "hardly ever went to a home without first contacting the police department."
But once he was there, Conners would be the one "to kick in (the fugitive's) door" -- not a police officer without a search warrant. Then, he said, the "officer (could) go in and keep the peace."
Because a defendant has contracted with a bail bond company on an individual basis, they essentially agree to be tracked down if they don't show up for court, Kosits, the attorney, said.
"A lot of it has to do with individual contracts," she said. "It's just a strange kind of business."