Allyn Hood, the owner of the bail bond company A-Hood Bonding, does his own bounty hunting — tracking down pretrial defendants who paid his company to bail them out of jail and missed their court dates. Hood estimates that he and his employees used to spend only about 10% of their time bounty hunting. But that number has increased dramatically in the past few years, he said.
“Half of our work time is spent looking for people,” Hood said of his current schedule during an interview at his Kingsport office in early March. “I got one guy, just missed court here recently. He’s in Tampa, Florida. I’ve got a pretty good location on him.”
Hood said he prefers local clients, though, which means he and his staff often wind up searching neighborhoods in Kingsport, Bristol and Abingdon. The bounty hunting they did one gray Tuesday in mid-March was strictly local.
The day started promptly at 8 a.m. in Hood’s office. There, he and three of his four employees — Jon Reed, Derek Bishop and Jeremy Judd — met before heading out. A-Hood Bonding was actively looking for 80-odd bail jumpers, their names listed in neat block letters on a white board in the office. Hood said their bonds alone totaled about $1 million.
Under a steady drizzle, the bounty hunters loaded into their cars, Hood and Judd in Hood’s teal CR-V, Reed and Bishop in a gray SUV. Fog covered the mountains like a blanket that hadn’t been kicked off yet. Mornings, Judd said, are a good time for bounty hunting: You can catch some people before they wake up.
“And, of course, that’s better if they’re strung out on drugs,” he added.
First stop: a house in the Kingsport neighborhood of Cliffside, where a client lived. A-Hood bailed him out on a $35,000 bond for FTA, or “failure to appear”: missing his court date for a previous charge. Now he’d missed his hearing for the FTA charge.
The cars turned off one of Kingsport’s streets and followed a road that climbed uphill, into a maze of little one-story houses.
“This house is best from the back, isn’t it?” Hood said into a walkie-talkie.
“No, there ain’t no back door or anything,” Bishop’s fuzzed voice responded over the speaker. “He’s in the very back corner ... the far left-hand side.”
They stopped at a cream-colored prefab. Its yard held a wood pile and an assortment of toys and baby seats, several overturned as if blown about in a storm.
“This is Jon the bondsman!” Reed yelled, pounding the door. Birds twittered in the quiet. “You there?”
The bounty hunters were confident that he was: It was the address the client listed, for one thing, and they’d done their research, calling contacts and combing through his history. Reasonable suspicion is nowhere near enough for a police officer or sheriff to break into someone’s house in Tennessee. But the state’s bail bondsmen and bounty hunters “have a lot more leeway than [law enforcement] when it comes to the law,” said Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy.
“If somebody’s absconded, and that individual’s at a residence that [the bail bondsmen or bounty hunters] know they live at, without a search warrant or anything, they can pretty much go in that residence. Us, unless we see the offender that we have a warrant for in the residence, we can’t enter,” the sheriff said.
Tennessee’s bail bondsmen and bounty hunters do need a court-certified copy of the bond; that’s pretty much their warrant. Armed with just that document and reasonable suspicion that a client’s inside their house, they have the right to do what they did when the client didn’t answer that day — force the door open and enter with the right to arrest him.
The group filed inside. The house was a dim wreck, its living room floors mostly hidden under heaps of clothes and plastic bags, the kitchen choked with canned goods and cleaning supplies. As Hood and his employees predicted, the client was in bed in the back room. They pushed aside the curtain that served as a door. The client’s girlfriend sat up in the bed and turned on a lamp, her pale face floating in the light as the men let their client dress.
“Did you get my text?” the man asked.
“Yeah, but we couldn’t wait,” Hood said.
The man had called the judge and texted Hood after missing his court date. But he hadn’t gone to the court to explain in person, which Hood said can sometimes resolve the issue.
Despite the forced entry, the client was chill. He went quietly, chatting a little with the bounty hunters, exhaling a puff of cigarette smoke before getting in the backseat of the gray SUV. His girlfriend followed him out in a purple bathrobe with “The Joker” blazed in green across the back, weeping a little. She bent down and kissed him.
Then Bishop and Reed drove off to deliver their client to Hood’s other employee, who would take the defendant back to jail. A little more paperwork with the judge, and A-Hood Bonding would get its $35,000 back.
The U.S. bail bonding industry has become the subject of intense debate in recent years. Its supporters — most vocally, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters, themselves — argue that they’re performing essential services for the public.
“ Once [defendants get out of jail], you’ve gotta monitor their case through the courts, make sure they show up for their court dates, keep track of them like the pretrial [program] is supposed to be doing,” Hood said, referencing Sullivan County’s new pretrial release program. “We do the same thing at no cost to the taxpayers. Where they spend $850,000 to monitor, they don’t have 100 [defendants] yet. We monitor 1,200.”
There’s also research showing that commercial bail bondsmen and bounty hunters are effective at getting pretrial defendants to make their hearings and tracking them down when they fail to appear. According to economics professor and researcher Alex Tabarrok, defendants who miss court and are pursued by bounty hunters “are a whopping 50% less likely to be on the loose after one year than other bail jumpers.”
Sheriff Cassidy said that many of those bail jumpers are people his department simply doesn’t have the time or the resources to pursue.
“They help out law enforcement tremendously,” Cassidy said of bail bondsmen and bounty hunters. “They capture thousands of fugitives yearly that have absconded from jail or failed to appear that would take us from other law enforcement activities if there wasn’t bondsmen and bounty hunters.”
On the flip side, a host of other criminal justice experts— particularly those who focus on the rights and needs of defendants — argue that bail bonds place a heavy burden on low-income defendants before they’ve even been proven guilty.
“Indigent people, even a lot of working-class people, are affected by bonds in that they can’t post the bonds that are required, so they stay in jail pending their case,” said Andrew Gibbons, Sullivan County’s public defender, who represents people from those groups. “Lots of times, people [charged with] minor offenses are incarcerated longer because they can’t afford bond than they would have been had they made bond at the outset of their offense, been released and later found guilty.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for reforms to the criminal justice system, 70% of all inmates in the country’s local jails are pretrial defendants. Gibbons said that’s why Tennessee has such crowded jails. He’s even seen defendants plead guilty to serious crimes just to get out of those jails, “and at the same time maintain their innocence the entire time. It’s very unfair,” he said.
Defendants who do manage to scrape together the fee for a bail bond company — either in one lump sum or in installments, depending on the agreement — don’t get that money back. And they’re at the mercy of a company that can quickly, easily revoke their bond and take them back to jail if the bondsman suspects they might break the conditions of their bond.
Cassidy said the pretrial program is Sullivan County’s attempt to respond to those issues. Meanwhile, at the state level, legislators have introduced House and Senate bills that would require courts to let certain pretrial defendants out of jail —namely, those charged with minor offenses who hadn’t been previously convicted of anything serious. The bills, introduced in 2019, are still being considered.
Gibbons said he would be happy if bail bond laws were changed so that people charged with misdemeanors — which form the bulk of A-Hood Bonding’s clients — could be released pretrial without bail.
“Cash bond should be reserved for the worst of the worst [charges],” Gibbons said. “I don’t think people accused of run-of-the-mill nonviolent property crimes should be required to post cash bond.”
But there was one thing Gibbons, Cassidy and various other officials in Sullivan County’s criminal justice system seemed to agree on: They don’t want to see commercial bail disappear. Cassidy said he considers it one important tool among many for keeping jail overcrowding and unserved warrants in check. Gibbons said it helps the court protect the public in some cases.
“And if people don’t show up for court, the whole system shuts down,” he said.
While those debates play out in criminal justice circles, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters like the guys at A-Hood Bonding have defendants to bail out and bail jumpers to catch.
That Tuesday was a busy one. After their first case, the group hustled between a host of other houses and apartments, calling bond cosigners and local sources on their targets between stops. The neighborhoods blurred into one big labyrinth of steep, narrow roads, chain-link fences, shoebox-shaped prefabs and trailers.
Hood knew them like the back of his beefy hand. In one, he pointed out an empty lot where the house he was born in once stood. In many, he pointed out various little houses and plots of land he now owns. Between strategizing with his staff, he fielded calls from potential bail bond clients, plus a potential renter or two.
Some of the bail skippers and other people the bounty hunters spoke with that day were as calm as their first client had been. One man, learning that the bounty hunters were looking for his son, said that’s what he figured.
“I know I paid mine,” he added about his own bond with a chuckle.
Others were more tense.
“I don’t want this s--- here,” one woman said when she opened her door to find Reed and Hood looking for her boyfriend. “He’s not allowed here, he doesn’t stay here, he doesn’t come here.”
Several hid, like one bail jumper they found hiding in the closet of an apartment.
And a few were openly hostile, like the man in a sagging little house they visited in search of a woman who’d been out on bond for driving with a revoked license and missing her court date.
Her three boys, out of school because of the coronavirus, were playing what looked like a combat video game in one of the bedrooms. They said they had no idea where she was. Neither did the man, whose relation to the woman was mysterious. He was slight but jumpy, and shaking a little. The air in the house was thick with smoke.
“Keep your hands out of your pockets,” Bishop said to him. Then, looking at the guy more closely: “You’re high as hell.”
“I’m stressed out because y’all are here!” the man shot back.
Bishop and Reed searched the man, found a gun they said he was trying to slip under a pillow and eventually marched him outside where Hood could keep an eye on him. They had quickly assessed the place and determined it was a methamphetamine house. Further searching revealed a huge flat screen TV connected to an army of security cameras showing various angles of the yard and street, glass pipes for smoking meth and signs of squatters. But the woman they were searching for was nowhere to be found.
The boys’ aunt, who lived across the street, helped Hood reach the woman over the phone; she said she was heading back from another city to turn herself in.
“You workin’ hard in school?” Bishop gently asked one of the boys. The kid nodded. “Good,” Bishop said. “Make good grades and do well in school so you can get out of this.” The kid nodded again, his face inscrutable.
Then Bishop, Hood and the rest of their team got into their cars and headed out to look for the next few bail jumpers on their list. They’d gotten a lead on one in Abingdon.