News

When bounty hunters knock

Al Williams was alone at his North Whidbey home on a summer night when trouble came knocking. There was a loud trampling of feet across his back porch at the same time he heard someone at his front door.

The truck-driving former cop opened the door to find a couple of uniformed, badge-wearing men who demanded entry into his house. Williams pushed them back and asked to see their identification. It turned out that they were bounty hunters looking for a man he had never heard of.

Williams did the right thing, according to Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley. He called 911. Unfortunately, he said he was greeted by a rather uncooperative dispatcher who said deputies were busy with more important things, but she would alert them.

The way Williams tells it, the bounty hunters waved papers and argued that they had every right to enter his house. After waiting for awhile, Williams said he became nervous from the “intense argument” and relented, telling one of the bounty hunters that he would give him a guided tour of his home.

The second bounty hunter, however, came into his house uninvited, went down to the basement by himself and let the third man inside.

Williams wasn’t pleased. “There’s was something fishy about the whole thing,” he said. “I wasn’t happy about the way they came in. With their uniforms and badges, it seemed very close to impersonating a police officer.”

While run-ins with bounty hunters are pretty rare on Whidbey Island, it’s experiences like this that has the state Legislature looking at ways of regulating the largely unregulated business of bounty hunting.

There’s currently a bill before the Legislature that would require prospective bounty hunters to either have relevant law-enforcement experience or training, including instruction about the law and the use of force. The bill proposes to ban people with felony convictions from the profession and requires them to have a concealed handgun permit, which would restrict people under 21 from being bounty hunters.

Also, the bill would require that agents notify police before they force entry into a house.

More powers

than the police

About half the states in the union, including Washington, currently have no rules governing the mysterious and sometimes dangerous world of bounty hunting. Bounty hunters — also known as “skip tracers” or “bail recovery agents” — enjoy broad powers and freedoms well beyond what law enforcement have under an 1872 U.S Supreme Court decision.

The bounty hunters who showed up at the Williams’ house worked for A-Affordable Bail Bonds. It’s one of the more popular choices for Island County jail inmates and has a Oak Harbor number, but the office is in Vancouver. Josh Haarbrink, the forfeiture coordinator, is in charge of the many bounty hunters throughout the state who work for the office.

Haarbrink explained that bail bond companies post a bond to guarantee a crime suspect will show up for a court hearing. In signing an agreement with the bail bondman, the suspect essentially gives up many of his rights, such as allowing a bounty hunter access to his home.

If a suspect doesn’t show up for a hearing, Haarbrink said he tries to track the person down over the phone or uses other conventional methods. If that doesn’t work, he calls in the “fugitive recovery agents” to find the wayward criminal.

Haarbrink pointed out that the agents or bounty hunters aren’t just working for the bail bonds company, but they are helping out whoever co-signed the bond agreement. That person — often a relative — usually pays 10 percent of the bond and puts up collateral, such as a house. They can lose everything if the suspect isn’t caught.

While Haarbrink said his bounty hunters are professional and tactful, he supports the proposed law change. He said it would give his profession a better name, make working with law enforcement easier and “weed out a bunch of people in the state who really should not be hunting.”

“There’s a lot of really shady bond companies out there,” he said, “and a lot of shady hunters.”

Police back tighter laws

On Whidbey, Sheriff Hawley said he hears about bounty hunters trying to catch a fugitive a couple times a year. He said his office hasn’t had any trouble with them, especially since they are usually tracking someone law enforcement is interested in.

Cpt. Rick Wallace with the Oak Harbor Police Department said he only knows of a couple of times bounty hunters came to the city in the last 10 years. Both times the agents came to the police and asked for help apprehending a bad guy. Yet there could be have more occasions of bounty hunters in the city that police don’t know about, he said, since the agents don’t have to tell police.

In the two cases he was aware of, Wallace said officers were instructed to go to the scene to keep the peace and make sure no laws were broken, but they didn’t actively help the bounty hunters. Once the fugitives were caught, they took them into custody and brought them to the jail.

Wallace said there’s “a real gray area” about much of the bounty hunter business, especially the relationship between these untrained agents and police. It’s complicated by the fact that bounty hunters are armed and possibly untrained, but have the right to do things and go places that police cannot — at least without a warrant.

Both Hawley and Wallace said they support any tightening up of laws regarding bounty hunters. They both advise residents to simply call 911 in the unlikely event that they find bounty hunters at their door step.

It’s no conciliation to Williams, who feels his rights were trampled. The bounty hunters searched his home and didn’t find anyone or anything of interest. He said they claimed they were working with local law enforcement, who told them Williams was “in cahoots” with their fugitive. A deputy finally did arrive, but Williams said he was disappointed that he seemed to be on very friendly terms with the bounty hunters.

In reality, the fugitive — a man named “Robert” who had lived nearby — either gave the bond company a fake address or the agents mixed up the address. According to Haarbrink, it’s a common problem for fugitives to give a fake or old address, but he said there’s no obvious solution.

Williams and his wife, Barbara, both feel it’s a potentially dangerous situation that needs to be changed. Barbara said she wonders what would have happened had she been alone when the bounty hunters showed up. She said it’s not a good situation for a lone woman or an elderly person to have strange men demanding entrance to a home.

“What if we hadn’t been here?” she asked. “Would they have just broken into the house?”

The couple are both truck drivers who moved to the island from California to rural Whidbey in order to live in a calm, safe place. Since they are gone a lot, security is a big concern for them. They still like Whidbey, but Al said the bounty hunter incident and recent meth-house raids in the area had him re-thinking the decision. He’s even talking about pursuing a lawsuit against the bounty hunters.

“We try to cooperate with legitimate authorities, we have nothing to hide,” he said, “but don’t intend to welcome any unwarranted nonsense. Aren’t we entitled to the privacy and security of our home?”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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