Tony Chiz wears a bullet-proof vest, carries a gun, a Taser, handcuffs and a badge. But he's no cop.
The badge says, "Fugitive Recovery Agent" -- better known as a bounty hunter. His job is tracking down bail jumpers.
In the business since the mid-'90s, Chiz says most fugitives are captured without a fight. But across the country, bounty hunters have arrested the wrong people and injured or killed bystanders.
Recently, in Wildomar, Calif., the mayor's 46-year-old daughter, Jamie Scranton, was Tased and pepper-sprayed outside her home during a fight with a bail bondsman involving several family members, Riverside County sheriff's officials said. The bondsman was taking a friend of Scranton's 27-year-old son back to jail. The incident raised questions about what bail bondsmen and their bounty hunters can and can't do.
When their colleagues run amok, some bounty hunters and bondsmen cite factors such as a lack of public or police understanding about their powers of arrest, as well as a "cowboy" mentality or lack of education among the bounty hunters.
Bail bondsmen and their bounty hunters have sweeping powers to make arrests under an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Because they are enforcing a contract, courts have ruled that they are not bound by the same constitutional constraints as police. For instance, bounty hunters don't need a warrant to enter private property.
Chiz said that anyone can be a bounty hunter.
"If you've got the nerve to go do the job, you can go do it," said the former teacher.
Those who cannot afford to pay their full bail amount often hire a bail bond agency that guarantees they will appear in court. The usual fee is 10 percent of the bail amount set by the court. Most defendants appear as ordered, bondsmen say.
Tony Suggs, a bondsman and director at large for the California Bail Agents Association, said most bondsmen hire bounty hunters to track down their wayward clients, or "skips."
When Chiz took up the trade in 1994, he said bounty hunters in California were a motley crew.
"There were bikers, people fresh out of jail, crazy guys that I would not even want to sit in the same living room with," he said.
Some bail bondsmen and bounty hunters criticize what they regard as questionable tactics among bounty hunters.
Suggs said some bounty hunters feel they can cross the line and get away with it because those on the receiving end don't complain.
"We've got a bad enough image as it is. We don't want you to act like Dog on the TV show. We don't want to hire that person," Suggs said, referring to Duane "Dog" Chapman, the star of the reality TV show "Dog the Bounty Hunter." Chapman is known for his flowing blond mullet and rogue bounty-hunting tactics.
Zeke Unger, a bounty hunter who has served as an expert witness in court, said some bounty hunters are ill-trained "knuckle draggers" who abuse their power or create situations where innocent people might get hurt.
The law gives bounty hunters the power to arrest, he said, "but it does not give us the right to violate people's civil rights."
"If you go into a stranger's house and your bail skip is not in there, you've got big problems," he said.
When other people's homes come into play, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, "It is sort of a muddy area of the law."
Bounty hunters can seize people, she said, but there are limits.
Bob Burton, of the U.S. Coalition of Bail Recovery Agents in Santa Barbara, Calif., estimates that bounty hunters make upwards of 30,000 arrests a year nationwide.
Burton said bounty hunting is, by definition, a "maverick industry," made up of adrenaline junkies drawn to the thrill of the hunt.
Even so, Burton said, bounty hunters make few false arrests and studies have shown they are very effective -- the vast majority of fugitives pursued by bounty hunters are recaptured.
"If we were really messing up," he said, "the bonding industry would have been bankrupt from lawsuits."
Reach Sarah Burge at sburge@PE.com.