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Chapman's possible legal battle underscore perils of bounty hunting

By Russell Covey
FindLaw Columnist
Special to

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(FindLaw) -- Who is the fugitive now? That is the question Duane Lee "Dog" Chapman might ponder, if he has time between media appearances.

Chapman became an instant celebrity after he captured fugitive convicted rapist Andrew Luster -- the great-grandson of cosmetics giant Max Factor. Luster had fled to Mexico while on trial for drugging and raping three women. Thanks to Chapman, Luster is now in a California prison serving a 124-year sentence.

Through the sale of movie and TV rights, Chapman will undoubtedly be reimbursed for his out-of-pocket costs, and then some. That is on top of whatever cut of the $1 million bail bond Luster had posted he can wrangle.

It may seem a fairytale ending to the Luster saga. Mexico is rid of a dangerous sexual predator. The bounty hunter is rich and famous. The convicted rapist is behind bars. And hardly a taxpayer dollar was spent.

But for Chapman, one problem remains: Bounty hunting is illegal in Mexico, and Mexico wants Chapman to account for his actions. As Mexican prosecutor Marco Roberto Juarez remarked, "[a] foreigner cannot come here and assume the functions of police and detain people."

Will Chapman be allowed to ride off into the sunset? There is a chance U.S. courts won't let it happen.

The legal basics of bounty hunting

American bounty hunters traditionally have enjoyed broad powers. As the Supreme Court noted in 1872, in Taylor v. Taintor, a bounty hunter in pursuit of a bail-jumper "may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and, if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose."

But the court also made clear in Reese v. United States that what American bounty hunters may not do is pursue their quarry across international borders. A U.S. bounty hunter's "power of arrest can only be exercised within the territory of the United States."

Bounty hunters are routinely beaten, shot and sued, and sometimes, when they stray across international borders, they are extradited.

The tale of 'Dog' Chapman

As a U.S. bounty hunter, Chapman lost his special legal status when he left "the territory of the United States" to do his work. He chased Luster to Mexico, and found him there -- though he was not ultimately the person who brought him back to the United States.

In Mexico, bounty hunting -- at least by an American -- is illegal. For this reason, Chapman was jailed in Mexico. He was eventually released on bail -- but only on the condition that he report each Monday before a Mexican judge.

This past week, he didn't. Instead, Chapman appeared at a California courthouse to stake his claim to a portion of the $1 million bond. Now, ironically, Chapman himself is the fugitive -- a fugitive from Mexican justice.

Chapman is confident his lawyers can handle the Mexican charges. He may be right. But a word of warning to Chapman -- and other bounty hunters who wish to ply their trade on soil outside the United States -- is in order: consider the case of Daniel Kear.

The tale of Daniel Kear

In the early 1980s, Daniel Kear and a fellow bounty hunter tracked and found bail-jumper Sidney Jaffe. Florida had charged Jaffe with several counts of land fraud. He'd fled to a residence in Canada. There, Kear and his colleague seized him, and transported him to the United States.

In the United States, Jaffe was convicted and sentenced. But Canadian officials, none too pleased, issued a warrant for Kear's arrest. They also asked the United States to extradite Kear so he could face a kidnapping trial in Canada for his seizure of Jaffe there.

Under the U.S.-Canada treaty, a suspect may only be extradited for conduct illegal in both countries. Kear argued that he should not be extradited because his actions were not a crime under U.S. law, for a U.S. bounty hunter lawfully may seize his quarry where he finds him.

But as the extradition court ruled, Kear was wrong: As noted above, a U.S. bounty hunter lawfully may seize his quarry where he finds him, as long as it is within the United States. Kear's argument ignored the significance of the international border. In chasing Jaffe to Canada, Kear infringed the sovereignty of an international power. In dragging him back to the United States, he infringed on the authority of Canadian police and prosecutors.

In the end, Kear was extradited to Canada and convicted of kidnapping. Fortunately for Chapman, since he did not transport Luster back to the United States, he probably could not face such charges -- though he might yet be extradited back to Mexico to face others.

The case of Villareal

Kears's case is not unique. Although extradition historically has been rockier with our southern neighbor, overreaching American bounty hunters have been sent back to Mexico to face charges just as they have to Canada. That is what happened to an American named Villareal.

Villareal crossed into Mexico hoping to collect a $750 reward for the capture of a man who had defaulted on a bond and was wanted in Texas. When efforts to have the man lawfully deported failed, Villareal arranged for Mexican military officers to seize him in handcuffs and carry him to Texas.

Upon learning of these events, Mexican authorities filed criminal charges and sought Villareal's extradition. Over Villareal's objection, a federal appeals court upheld the extradition, noting the vital importance of protecting friendly international relationships.

The tales of Kear and Villareal show that under U.S. law, U.S. bounty hunters who cross borders to "arrest" suspects in other countries on U.S. charges, can be in serious jeopardy -- facing penalties not only from the foreign country, but also from an unsympathetic, extraditing U.S. government.

Healing old abduction wounds

These precedents suggest Chapman may have a legal fight on his hands. His situation is further complicated by Mexico's perception of American disregard for its sovereignty, a perception Chapman has done little to diminish.

Mexicans are still smarting from an incident occurring during the first Bush presidency: Without filing an extradition request or notifying Mexican authorities, the DEA orchestrated the forcible abduction of a Mexican doctor named Humberto Alvarez-Machain, who was suspected of assisting in the torture and killing of a DEA agent.

Armed gunmen kidnapped the doctor from his office in Guadalajara and flew him by private plane to El Paso, Texas, where he was arrested. Mexico and the international community fiercely protested the abduction as a gross violation of Mexico's territorial sovereignty.

The uproar over the kidnapping was compounded when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution could proceed despite governmental conduct that the court acknowledged might well have violated general international law principles. In the end, Alvarez-Machain was tried and acquitted in a federal district court.

As a result of the Alvarez-Machain incident, extradition relations between Mexico and the United States suffered a serious setback. Currently, hundreds of Mexican nationals wanted for serious crimes in the United States remain at large in Mexico.

However, recent steps by the two governments have greatly facilitated the transfer of fugitives. A recent federal appeals court ruling that Alvarez was entitled to sue his captors for civil damages might also serve to assuage Mexican resentment.

Given this progress, and the strong U.S. interest in Mexican compliance with U.S. extradition requests, the United States may not want to jeopardize relations merely to protect one renegade, albeit popular, bounty hunter.

Chapman thus may learn that international extradition is another in a long series of perils accompanying his career choice.

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Russell Covey, a FindLaw columnist, is an assistant professor of law at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California, where he teaches criminal law and international human rights.

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