September 6, 1997
By Dave Kopel, Paul Blackman
Americans were rightfully shocked recently when a gang of Phoenix bounty hunters broke into the wrong house, assaulted the inhabitants, and–when one of the victims fought back–murdered the man and his wife. The bounty hunters were allegedly attempting to capture a scofflaw, who had jumped bail. The bounty hunters were thus, in a sense, trying to make money by enforcing the law.
Such bounty hunting is much more common than most Americans realize. The Phoenix bounty hunters were private citizens practicing a largely unregulated profession. Most bounty hunters, though, are sworn law-enforcement officers serving cities, counties, states, and the federal government.
Unlike private bounty hunters, the government employees are supposedly strictly regulated by laws and the Constitution, and are carefully trained to minimize the use of force. But too often, some federal and local police are allowed to act just as thuggishly as are private bounty hunters.
The Phoenix killers were hoping for a percentage of money the bail bondsman would have to pay to the court, if the bail-jumper were not caught. But America’s government employee bounty hunters are usually seeking much more lucrative rewards: cars, houses, boats, money, anything which can allegedly be claimed to be associated with some contraband activity, such as drug sales. Under the “war on drugs,” it doesn’t take real trafficking for real bounty. Under the forfeiture laws, a small amount of marijuana, placed in a home or boat or car by someone else, can make the an entire home a forfeiture target.
In Southern California, officials lusted after a Malibu millionaire’s landholding, hoping to add it to adjoining park land. So they lied to a court, and claimed that over flights revealed marijuana growing under the cover of trees. Armed with a search warrant and dozens of firearms, a bevy of federal and local law enforcement agents broke into the millionaire’s home in the middle of the night. When the millionaire, Donald Scott, reached for a handgun to protect his wife from the midnight intruders, he was shot dead.
Earlier this year, the National Park Service’s SWAT team stormed the last private ranch on Santa Cruz Island. They claimed that several years before, someone had moved (just moved, not removed) some Indian artifacts. The objective of the SWAT raid was to seize the land for the Nature Conservancy. Like the victims of the Phoenix bounty hunters, the victims in Santa Cruz included people who were not suspected of any crime, but who were confronted and handcuffed by unidentified masked men pointing guns. The Santa Cruz raiders, being government employees, were wielding machine guns, while the Phoenix bounty hunters had more ordinary weapons.
While government bounty hunters are sometimes after land, the more common target is money. Federal forfeiture laws allow a government employee to take all the cash in someone’s wallet, or all the money in her bank account, and then force the forfeiture victim to prove that the money belongs to her, and that she obtained the money lawfully. This multi-billion dollar form of legalized piracy has become so common that many law enforcement departments depend upon it, calculating expected bounty when figuring out their annual budgets.
The most important distinction between private and government bounty hunters is this: private bounty hunters are expressing their outrage about the bounty hunters in Phoenix, and calling the Phoenix thugs a disgrace to the profession. The Phoenix bounty hunters will soon stand trial for their crimes. Contrast the national attention and outrage with what happens when the killer works for the government:
During the night of April 17, 1995, sheriff’s deputies broke into the trailer of Scott W. Bryant in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Mr. Bryant, age 29, was unarmed and did not resist, but was immediately shot to death in front of his seven year old son. Mr. Bryant was killed by a detective who had repeatedly made headline-grabbing drug busts. Although the District Attorney found the shooting “not in any way justified,” no criminal charges were filed, and the detective was returned to active duty. One-tenth of an ounce of marijuana was found in the trailer.
From millionaire estates in Malibu, to trailer parks in Wisconsin, Americans are being robbed, assaulted, and murdered by masked gunmen who break into their homes during the night. Americans should demand swift legal reforms to protect their families from all types of masked gunmen, both private-sector and government.
David Kopel and Paul Blackman are the authors of the book No More Wacos: What’s Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It.
Note: After this article was released, it was discovered the Phoenix perpetrators were a gang of armed robbers. The claim to be bounty hunters was false, and was intended only as a cover for their violent crimes. We are also informed that many people who track down bail jumpers prefer to be called “professional bondsmen,” “skip tracers,” “bail enforcement agents,” or “recovery specialists,” and consider “bounty hunter” a Hollywood term.
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Copyright 2000 David B. Kopel