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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Above the law: US bounty hunters
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online

Multi-millionaire fugitive rapist Andrew Luster is back in police custody, but he was tracked down by an independent bounty hunter, not the authorities.

Duane 'Dog' Chapman
'Dog' Chapman finds himself back on the wrong side of the law
The bounty hunter in question, Duane "Dog" Chapman, could face charges of kidnapping as he seized his prey in Mexico, where his job is illegal.

But in most of the United States, a bounty hunter has more power than a police officer - allowed to break and enter without a warrant, detain a suspect or chase him across the country.

The career has been glamorised in Hollywood films, attacked when hunters make sometimes fatal mistakes and is often misunderstood, according to its practitioners.

"Dog" Chapman would be many people's idea of a bounty hunter, given the persona he projects on his website and in interviews.

He calls himself "the greatest bounty hunter in the world" and claims more than 6,000 captures, though he says he often does not get paid the full 10%-15% of the bail money promised.

Murder suspect

Often dressed in black leather, with gold-tipped rattlesnake-skin boots and a mop of unruly blond hair, Dog admits to starting out on the wrong side of the law.

As a juvenile he was arrested 18 times for armed robberies, but he decided to go on the run himself when he was implicated in a murder.

He insists he was not involved in the killing when a fellow member of the Devil's Disciples motorcycle gang shot a drug dealer, but he panicked when he heard he was a wanted man.

They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose
1873 Supreme Court ruling on bounty hunters chasing a suspect

He did not get far from his home before police picked him up and he was convicted, serving two years of a five-year sentence.

When he was released, he was hit with a demand for back-payment of child support and it was then that he turned from prey to predator.

"This Judge Levi called and said I owed thousands of dollars in back child support. Well I told him I wasn't going to pay for it because I wasn't there - I was in prison," he says on his website.

"So he said, 'Do you know what a bounty hunter is, boy?' I said yes. He held up a picture and said, 'Can you find this boy?' I said yes. He said 'If you find him, I'll pay $200 of your child support.'

"Well I only needed about a week to find this guy. When I did catch up with him, I tied him up with my belt, cinched it, and I took him into Judge Levi's court - my first bounty."

Money matters

Mr Chapman uses force, guile or whatever comes to hand to help him catch a fugitive.

While the Luster chase was an independent initiative, bounty hunters are generally called in by bail bondsmen when someone fails to turn up for court.

A bondsman may guarantee the bail for a suspect for about 10% of the set amount.

So an accused person may pay $1,000 to get a $10,000 bail, for instance, but if he then does not turn up at court, the bondsman has to pay the full $10,000 - making it worth while to call in a bounty hunter.

Once asked to find a fugitive, bounty hunters have sweeping powers granted to them in the 19th Century by the US Supreme Court.

The 1873 decision declares: "Whenever bondsmen choose to do so, they may seize the defendant and deliver him up in their discharge, and if that cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done.

"They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose."

Innocent victims

Some states are bringing in their own laws to further regulate bounty hunting which attracts stiff criticism when mistakes are made - such as the case of a 42-year-old mother-of-four kidnapped from New York, held in a succession of cells and then driven more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) to Alabama.

When it was realised that she was not the wanted fugitive, Jrae Mason was given $24 for a bus ticket back to New York. A jury later awarded her more than $1m.

Other innocent victims do not get such a chance, with fatal shootings by people claiming to be bounty hunters in Virginia, Arizona and Missouri.

But the hunters themselves insist they do an important job, claiming to capture about 90% of the more than 35,000 people who jump bail each year in the US - saving law enforcement agencies time and money.

And while Dog Chapman may be the archetypal manhunter, more and more women are joining him to do what they say is a vital part of the justice system.

The BBC's David Willis
"A man who boasts of being the greatest bounty hunter in the world"

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