Bounty hunters now the quarry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 September, 1997, 12:00am

Bounty hunter - the very phrase conjures up images of the old wild west, of Wyatt Earp and Jesse James, of episodes of Bonanza where the tumbleweed moves faster than a gunslinger's hand.

Arizona, home of Monument Valley and other desert landscapes where westerns are regularly filmed, has more wild west in it than mere scenery. In fact, one incident last week proved you can take Arizona out of the wild west, but you can't take the wild west out of Arizona.

The libertarian, antiquated aspects of some of America's laws came into focus when a group of five armour-wearing, gun-toting men burst into a family home looking for a man who had skipped bail. Their mission was to return the fugitive and claim a reward from the bail bond company that had underwritten his bail so he could go free.

There was, however, a minor problem. They raided the wrong house, where no one knew or had anything to do with the intended target: not the woman and her three terrified young children whom they tied up, nor the man and his girlfriend whom the men found in an upstairs bedroom and shot to death.

The dead man, 23-year-old Chris Foote, had defended himself in the best of American traditions: when he heard the intruders at the bedroom door, he opened fire with a handgun, wounding two before they overpowered and killed him and the girl.

But the fact that three of the bounty hunters have been caught and charged with murder is not enough to quell demands that something be done to put an end to a 19th-century practice hopelessly out of touch - and, it would seem, out of control.

Many critics said the unregulated nature of bounty-hunting for bail jumpers meant the tragedy in Phoenix was always on the cards.

'We knew that something like this was going to happen because there's no standard or regulations across the country,' said Bill Bryant, who runs an association of what are euphemistically called 'bail enforcement agents'.

It is indeed the case that only two states in the union - Indiana and Nevada - require licences for such people. And only in Texas do laws prevent bail jumpers from being re-arrested by anyone but a security guard or private investigator.

In most states, Arizona included, bounty-hunters are legally entitled to break into a home if they believe a fugitive is inside. They can also use 'reasonable' force to detain the runaway - although whether wearing armour and ski masks and blasting away two innocent people is reasonable is open to question.

Legal experts say the reason the law is so weighted in favour of bounty hunting is that if a man skips bail, he can fully expect that he will be hunted down. The spirit of Wyatt Earp truly does haunt the legal code of the United States.

What is equally astonishing is quite how popular a part-time profession bounty-hunting is. Mr Bryant's association alone has about 2,000 members.

There is even a school for budding hunters: the National Institute of Bail Enforcement in Tucson.

For most patients, there is nothing more comforting than a doctor placing a stethoscope upon the chest and giving a clean bill of health.

That, however, is cold comfort if you believe the results of an alarming study just completed by researchers in Philadelphia.

The study found that while the stethoscope might be one of the oldest and most reliable of instruments for picking up heart and respiratory problems, the people using it leave much to be desired.

About 450 student and recently-qualified doctors were asked to identify ailments via the device - and only got it right one time out of five.

And out of the 12 different conditions they were asked to diagnose, not one doctor recognised more than seven - and some did not even get one right.

Researchers called the success rate of the doctors 'disturbingly low'.

They attributed it to a rise in hi-tech equipment in hospitals, and a corresponding drop-off in the amount of emphasis being placed on stethoscopes and other traditional devices.

Whether that particular diagnosis is supposed to make one's heart beat a little easier is difficult to say.

Outside the White House, the US Senate is the pinnacle of political life - the chamber populated with wise old souls entrusted with protecting the nation from any excesses emanating from the lower House of Representatives.

Instead, the venerable institution has shown itself in recent weeks to be a sandbox for the childish and the senile.

First there was the refusal to bend Senate rules so that a blind aide could take her guide dog on to the floor of the chamber.

Next up comes the old curmudgeon Jesse Helms, whose committee has ultimate power over confirming the president's nominees for ambassadorships. Because Mr Helms does not like the choice of a fellow Republican, William Weld, to be envoy to Mexico, he is exploiting an obscure rule which allows him to block Mr Weld by refusing even a hearing on the subject. (Far be it from us to suggest that, for the sake of democracy, he might consider allowing a free vote and simply voting no.) Now we hear the powers-that-be have refused to allow a senator to take his laptop on to the Senate floor.

It would, they have judged, be 'a distraction'.

Heaven forbid that a piece of 20th-century technology should prevent a member from falling asleep while his colleagues drone on at the podium.