In the dead of night, five masked men wearing protective body armor stormed a west Phoenix home, searching for a subject who had skipped bail.
In a hail of gunfire, the bounty hunters botched their mission - raiding the wrong residence and leaving an innocent couple dead. Two men were arrested, and a third is expected to face charges when he is released from the hospital - their accomplices remain at large. The bail jumper being sought, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found.
Their night of terror cast a spotlight on the sometimes shadowy practices of bounty hunters, whose actions are little known to the public at large, yet who are regarded by police as vital aids in law enforcement.
Critics say the time has come for states to rein in what many consider the least regulated arm of law enforcement.
Bounty hunters have operated under the virtually the same rules for more than a century. An 1873 United States Supreme Court ruling gives bounty hunters broad rights when pursuing criminals who skipped bail.
As contract workers for bail-bond firms, they are not required to obtain a search warrant, as are police, nor are they required to notify police in advance of their action. Also, police must get a subject to waive extradition if he flees the state, while a bounty hunter, "throws you in the trunk and brings you back," says Aaron Rosenthal, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Changing the rules
Getting the law changed would be difficult, says Mr. Rosenthal, since it would involve either the Supreme Court overturning the 1873 ruling, or else an action by Congress.
The unique nature of the job - chasing down people who have reneged on a promise to show up in court - is the reason why bounty hunters have so much freedom.
They have a "contractual right of arrest," says Bob Burton, who runs a Tucson, Ariz., academy that trains bounty hunters. When a defendant has bail posted, he signs an agreement stating he may have his house entered or be taken across state lines if he fails to honor the agreement.
Many law-enforcement officials value bounty hunters. Police departments across the country "don't have the resources to hunt men down across the nation," says Phoenix police spokesman Mike Torres. But the relationship isn't always ideal.
The job's mystique
Some bounty hunters, attracted to the image of the profession as portrayed in films and on TV, walk a line between fiction and reality. One law-enforcement official described bounty hunters he has met as having all the macho swagger of characters portrayed in such Hollywood films as "Midnight Run" or "Lone Eagle."
And while the nation's 2,000 bounty hunters are largely effective - apprehending about 87 percent of the roughly 35,000 people who jump bail annually - the recent Arizona incident provides fuel for those who want to curb the industry.
Rosenthal, a retired assistant New York police chief, endorses a system of more stringent screening standards and training procedures. As the business of bounty hunting grows along with prison populations and the number of people released on bail, he wants to ensure that bounty hunters are responsible professionals.
Currently, no such system exists. Only two states, Indiana and Nevada, require licenses for bounty hunters; and Texas requires bail jumpers to be caught by either a licensed security guard or private investigator. Rosenthal says standards should be implemented nationwide, and include FBI background checks.
In Arizona, state Sen. John Kaites is drafting legislation that would require such background checks. His bill would also require that bounty hunters notify police before entering an occupied structure.
A similar incident here in the 1980s led to a public outcry to regulate bounty hunters. A 19-year-old bounty hunter fatally shot a fugitive in the back. He was sentenced to six months in prison, but the movement to reform the laws was defeated.