On June 9, Jackie Shell, a Tennessee bounty hunter, killed the country musician Randy Howard during a shootout. When John Doyle, a bail-recovery agent, heard the news, his first thought was: If the bounty hunter went in alone, he’s an idiot.
The singer had failed to appear in court on a litany of rural-route charges: a handful of DUIs, possession of a firearm while intoxicated, and driving on a revoked license. When Howard failed to appear at a court hearing, the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest. What happened next was straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel: His neighbor, Terry Dotson, told reporters that when he offered to drive Howard to his appearance, Howard told him he wasn’t going back to jail. Shell approached Howard’s Marion County residence—apparently alone—and Howard opened fire. Shell fired back and both men were shot. Shell was expected to live. Howard died on the scene.
Bounty hunters usually grab national attention only when somebody gets shot, but in many states, they’re an active part of the criminal-justice system. The modern bail-recovery industry, mostly identified with Wild-West-like Hollywood depictions like Dog the Bounty Hunter or the novels by Janet Evanovich, is largely invisible to the public eye. This kind of incident usually drives two separate criticisms: that America’s archaic bail system disproportionately impacts the poor, and that bounty hunters are acting as wildly unregulated quasi-police. Some areas have addressed the first with pretrial services programs that screen and release low-risk defendants. In certain states the second might be partially true—but the industry is far more sophisticated than it appears at first glance.