Bounty Hunters Can Search Without Warrants Because They are Not State Actors

By Megan Marlatt

The Tenth Circuit in United States v. Poe held that bounty hunters did not constitute state actors under the Fourth Amendment because they did not search the defendant’s residence with law enforcement’s knowledge, and they did not search the premises with the intention of helping law enforcement.  No. 07-6337 (10th Cir. 2009). While apprehending the defendant who had skipped bail, five bounty hunters, in Poe, noticed methamphetamine paraphernalia and a gun in the defendant’s evidence which was later presented as evidence in the defendant’s trial.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches by state actors, and any evidence found as a consequence of an unlawful search may be suppressed prior to or at trial. However, under United States v. Souza, because bounty hunters are not actually employed by the government, like other private citizens, they can only be considered state actors if “the government knew of and acquiesced in the intrusive conduct,” and “the party performing the search intended to assist law enforcement efforts.”  223 F.3d 1197 (10th Cir. 2000).

The Court in Poe determined that the bounty hunters were not state actors because neither of the Souza prongs had been satisfied. The Court determined that, because the police were called after the bounty hunters had already apprehended the defendant, the first Souza prong of government knowledge was not satisfied. The Court determined that the second prong under Souza was not satisfied because the bounty hunters located the weapon and drugs while apprehending the defendant in exchange for payment, i.e., for their own purposes, and not to assist the government.

This decision coincides with what other circuits have concluded about bounty hunters and similar actors. Though not specifically on point, the Eleventh Circuit in Jaffe v. Smith held that a bounty hunter was not a state actor because the bounty hunter did not apprehend the defendant under the authorization of the United States government.  825 F.2d 304 (11th Cir. 1987).  Likewise, the Fifth Circuit, in Landry v. A-Able Bonding, Inc., held that bail bondsmen were not state actors either because the bail bonding industry was separate from the criminal justice system. 75 F.3d 200 (5th Cir. 1996).