An Opinion Editorial by Commissioner Troy Downing
Bail bonds are integral to the criminal justice system – they allow those charged with crimes freedom to work on their defense and deal with their personal lives and obligations prior to trial. Bail bond agents are responsible for ensuring a person shows up to court.
If the person out on bond does not fulfill their obligations, the bond agent will arrest or cause the arrest of that person. The person making the arrest may be the bondsman or they may use a fugitive recovery agent, commonly referred to as a bounty hunter.
House Bill 62, requested by our agency and sponsored by Representative Bill Mercer, protects the public and defendants out on bond by posting reasonable sideboards that agents must follow when arresting a fugitive. The CSI is the primary regulator of bail bondsmen, or surety producers. In response to numerous cases of abuse, House Bill 62 closes a literal void in the law to protect the public from bad actors.
Two days prior to introducing this bill, a Great Falls bounty hunter turned himself into law enforcement charged with multiple felonies, including assault with a weapon. The bond agent allegedly drove into oncoming traffic ramming a defendant’s vehicle before shooting the man with non-lethal bullets and then tasing him.
Clearly, this was a threat to public safety. This act was not an outlier, but an abuse we continue to see, including unlicensed bail bondsmen unlawfully forcing entry into third-party homes – one high-profile case ended up with a person, not the fugitive, murdered in his own home.
Prior to House Bill 62, bounty hunters were not required to be licensed under Montana law. Basically anyone, including felons, could hunt down and arrest defendants. House Bill 62 solves this problem by requiring bounty hunters hold a license − the same license bondsmen must hold. This allows our agency to oversee the actions of bounty hunters and ensure the law is followed. Our agency can also revoke the licenses of bad actors and pursue legal action if a bounty hunter is unlicensed.
Working with industry, law enforcement, and our Legislature, House Bill 62 requires bondsmen and bounty hunters to:
- not be a felon
- reach the age of 21 years old
- hold a high school or equivalent diploma
- complete a training course approved by our agency
- notify law enforcement before making an arrest
- report arrests
- only arrest with probable cause
These requirements are intended to ensure armed bounty hunters with broad arrest authority are trained and licensed.
House Bill 62 also clarifies when bondsmen can revoke bail and initiate an arrest.
Under the previous law, bondsmen could arrest a defendant if they felt “insecure” about their surety. This broad definition allowed a bond agent to arrest a principal for virtually any reason − leading some bondsmen to coerce defendants under threat of rearrest to perform tasks such as manual labor, assist in fugitive recovery operations, or even be subjected to sexual abuse. In other cases, bondsmen revoked bail only to post bond again to implement additional fees on the defendant. Under the new law, bondsmen are required to have probable cause, not just a feeling of insecurity.
While most members of the bail bond industry abide by the law, a few bad actors abuse their position.
Defendants on bond should always read their contract with the bail company, confirm the bondsman is licensed, and understand what bondsmen legally can and cannot do. If Montanans believe a bail bondsman is abusing their authority or not following the law, they can contact our agency by going to CSIMT.gov.
Thank you to the Montana Legislature for your bipartisan support and Governor Gianforte for signing this bill into law.
Troy Downing is the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance, Montana State Auditor. Commissioner Downing is a two-tour combat veteran, businessman, and entrepreneur.
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