If you or someone you know is facing criminal arrest or time in jail, you’ve got to be ready to throw around some legal vocabulary. Two of the terms you might start hearing are “bail bondsman” and “bounty hunter.” You’ve probably driven by a storefront advertising bail bonds or heard the word bounty hunter on TV. Only seeing these words in those two contexts, people often conflate the professions. Although bondsmen and bounty hunters can work together, their job descriptions are quite different. Take a minute to familiarize yourself with each position and the situations where you might encounter them.

WHAT IS A BAIL BONDSMAN?

Bail is the money you pay when you are arrested and put in jail. This money serves to ensure that you will return for your assigned court dates. If you fail to appear in court, you lose the money. A bondsman or a bail bond agent is a person or corporation that agrees to cover a person’s bail for them in exchange for a fee or commission. Bondsmen are required to be licensed by the state and must have a good understanding of the legal system.

Usually, a bail bondsman has a standing agreement with the court that they will cover any bail or court fees for a defendant that they are contracted with. Bondsman normally charge anywhere from 10-15% of the total bail amount for their services. This makes them much more affordable than paying bail outright. Because the bondsman has a lot riding on the defendant arriving at court on their assigned day, they will do all they can to ensure the defendant’s appearance.

WHAT IS A BOUNTY HUNTER?

When someone doesn’t show up, however, a bounty hunter also called a fugitive recovery agent is hired to find and capture a fugitive and bring them in so that a bondsman doesn’t lose money. If a defendant signed a deal with a bondsman to get out of jail and then ran off, trying to evade court orders, the bondsman may hire a bounty hunter to bring that person in.

Regulations regarding bounty hunters vary state to state. In some states, bounty hunters must be trained and licensed. In other states, however, no training or licensure is required and the only requirement is that they be hired by a bondsman. Some states allow bounty hunters to enter the fugitive’s home without a warrant in order to issue a re-arrest. There are also many states where bounty hunting is restricted or banned.

Basically, bondsmen are hired to help things run smoothly when a defendant needs help getting out of jail. Bounty hunters are asked to step in when things go wrong. As long as everyone obeys their contract, there’s usually no need for bounty hunter involvement.