NASHVILLE, Tenn. — About three weeks ago, just after midnight, a group of seven bounty hunters surrounded a car in a Wal-Mart parking lot and blocked it from leaving, according to court documents. Authorities say the bounty hunters believed an ex-convict who had skipped out on several court appearances was one of four men in the parked car.
The men in the car bolted and the bounty hunters opened fire, leading to a chaotic seven-mile chase April 23 through Clarksville, a mostly military town near the Army’s Fort Campbell. One of the passengers in the car was killed and another man in the vehicle was wounded.
Police said none of the men in the car was armed or had an outstanding warrant. They charged the seven bounty hunters with murder.
The killing raises questions about training and licensing for bounty hunters, who are given broad powers — in some cases more than police officers — to hunt down people who skip bail.
Authorities said the slain man’s Social Security card and ID listed his name as Jalen Johnson, but Jalen’s father said his last name was Milan. He said his 24-year-old son, a father of three children, was killed by overly aggressive bounty hunters in a horrific case of mistaken identity.
“It’s like they were just gung-ho,” Bernard Milan said. “If they had showed one ounce of professionalism, it would never have happened.”
In Tennessee, bail bondsmen must be qualified by a court and go through a background check, said J.R. Henderson, president of the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents. Different courts in different counties have different rules for what they have to do. Some courts ask that the results of a drug test for each person writing bonds be submitted. State law requires bail bondsman to have the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation do a criminal backgrounds check on a professional bondsman.
Bail bondsmen are empowered to hire bounty hunters or act as them to bring in people who violate the terms of jail bonds. Some of the seven men charged in the Clarksville case were bail bondsmen, police said; others were strictly bounty hunters.
Tennessee is not one of at least 21 states that require bounty hunters to be licensed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They must not be convicted felons and have eight hours of community education.
That’s not nearly enough training, said Henderson, who is chief operating officer of a large bonding company. He said his opinions are his own, not the organization he represents.
At a minimum, he said, they should be forced to meet the same requirements as bail bondsmen.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these companies use recovery agents that I would not use,” he said.
Bounty hunters get their extraordinary powers from an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, said Brian Johnson, a professor of criminology at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. The decision said bail bondsmen may exercise their rights to pick up someone wanted for skipping bail in person or with use of an agent, known as a bounty hunter.
“They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose,” the decision said.
Johnson said in some cases they have more power than a police officer: They don’t need arrest warrants and can cross state lines.
They aren’t supposed to use deadly force unless they’re defending themselves, said David Raybin, a Nashville attorney and expert in criminal law who isn’t involved in the Clarksville case.
Authorities say the bounty hunters were looking for 28-year-old William Ellis, who has a lengthy rap sheet. According to online court records, Ellis was charged with aggravated assault in 2009 and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. He’s wanted for failure to show up to court several times, including once to face a probation violation, said his lawyer, Charles Bloodworth, an assistant public defender in Montgomery County.
The father of the slain man said he doesn’t think his son or the three other men, who were all cousins, even knew Ellis.
The seven bounty hunters face multiple charges for the violence, including first-degree felony murder and kidnapping.
Johnson, the criminologist, said he still believes the industry is pretty good at regulating itself because the bonding companies face lawsuits for their bounty hunters’ actions. And like in Tennessee, bounty hunters will face charges when they step over the line.