Douglas County law enforcement officials say it is time Kansas reviewed and restricted the powers of one of its last links to the days of the wild, wild West: the bounty hunter.
Kansas is one of many states that doesn't have a definitive law governing the powers bail bondsmen or their bounty hunters use to find people who jump bail.
Instead, the state relies on common law from previous court cases. For bounty hunters, common law draws on an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows them to go so far as to break into a bail jumper's house without a warrant to make an arrest.
"It amazes me that our state still has common law as it relates to bail bondsmen," Douglas County District Court Judge Michael Malone said last week.
Malone made the comment as he sentenced Michael L. Johnson, 34, one of two former bounty hunters charged earlier this year with going beyond common-law powers by using deception and intimidation to get into a Lawrence home in an effort to find a suspect. The suspect didn't live there, and he wasn't there.
Malone also expressed amazement that the man he was sentencing was already on probation in a federal criminal case but had been able to get work as a bounty hunter with a Kansas City, Mo., bail bonding company and to come to Kansas looking for somebody.
Calls for change
"Perhaps it is time for the state government to get involved in these matters," Malone said.
Douglas County Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney and Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin agreed. Both said the Kansas Legislature should act. Licensing of bounty hunters officially referred to as recovery agents or bail enforcement agents also should be considered, they said.
"I think some scrutiny is in order," Olin said. "I think there's got to be a model out there worth looking at."
"If a law enforcement officer has to comply with certain laws and constitutional restraints, then why shouldn't a bounty hunter?" Kenney said.
Johnson, the man sentenced Friday by Malone, initially was charged with kidnapping, aggravated burglary and impersonating a police officer.
Johnson ultimately pleaded no contest to amended charges of attempted aggravated burglary and making a criminal threat. He was placed on probation.
Tim James, Lawrence, an accomplice in the case, faced similar charges but was found guilty last week by a jury of misdemeanor criminal restraint.
Though James and Johnson avoided convictions on the more serious charges, Kenney said both men needed to be prosecuted. She said it was the most extreme case of bounty hunters abusing their power that she had seen as a district attorney.
"We felt it was important to file this because we want bondsmen to know that this is not acceptable behavior," she said. "The fact is the jury did say the bondsmen exceeded their authority in this case."
James was assisting Johnson the night of Jan. 15, 2001, in finding a bail jumper also wanted by Jackson County, Mo., for failure to appear in court on a drug charge.
James previously had done some occasional work as a bounty hunter for Jim Price, bondsman for A-1 Bonding Co., Lawrence.
Price said James always did a good job for him, and he didn't think James broke the law the night of Jan. 15, 2001. He also doesn't think it's necessary to license and test bounty hunters.
"That doesn't make them efficient at their job," Price said. "I have to go to continuing education classes that have nothing to do with my job."
Price said he usually didn't need the assistance of a bounty hunter.
"When I think the situation is too dicey to handle by myself, then I want somebody to watch my back," he said.
Sam Fields, owner of Applejacks and AJ's bonding companies said he handled bail jumpers mostly on his own. When he needs help finding someone he turns to licensed private detectives.
"It's hard to find quality people who are bounty hunters," Fields said.
In the Kansas City area in recent years there have been several controversial incidents involving bounty hunters.
In June, a man died in a struggle with three bounty hunters who were looking for his brother. In 1997 bounty hunters broke into the wrong house looking for a traffic offender. They shot to death the man living there.
Kansas City, Mo., Councilman Alvin Brooks recently drafted ordinances that would regulate bounty hunters operating in that city. It would require bounty hunters to have background checks and be insured by their bonding companies. It also would require special training.
Kenney said she didn't believe Kansas law would allow cities or counties to regulate bounty hunters. She said such action would have to be taken at the state level.