The term “fugitive” describes a person who has escaped from a place like prison, or who is in hiding for fear of the police finding him and bringing him to jail. For example, a fugitive is a person who has committed a crime and flees to another state in an attempt to evade the police and criminal charges.

The famous couple Bonnie and Clyde were fugitives, running from the law to evade capture after committing several murders and bank robberies across the country. To explore this concept, consider the following fugitive definition.

Definition of Fugitive


  1. An individual who either escapes from jail, or who runs away in an attempt to avoid capture.


1350–1400       Latin    (fugitīvus)

Fugitive Recovery Agent

A fugitive recovery agent, or bounty hunter, is in the business of tracking down fugitives who flee to avoid a court appearance. For example, fugitive recovery agents have worked in law enforcement in the past, so they know just what tips and tricks to use to recover individuals who flee. In fact, fugitive recovery agents have a nearly perfect success rate, capturing about 90 percent of the individuals they search for.

It is usually bail bondsmen who engage fugitive recovery agents for their specialized services. In addition, sometimes the fugitive’s friends or family members will hire a fugitive recovery agent, when they had paid bail out their loved one, only for him to run when he was free, leaving them on the hook for that money.

Fugitive Recovery Agent Training

When an individual is interested in fugitive recovery agent training, he or she may first have to take a comprehensive exam, and account for his prior experience to meet the state’s requirements for licensing. From there, the procedures for training change, based on the state in which the applicant lives. For one thing, the individual must become familiar with both state and constitutional laws, as well as the fugitive’s civil rights that he is to uphold.

Some of the aspects an individual needs to learn during fugitive recovery agent training include:

  • The safe use of weapons and firearms, and the appropriate times to use them
  • The proper use of force
  • Entry onto a fugitive’s property and how to properly seize the individual
  • How to transport a fugitive to the authorities
  • The legal and bail bond processes

How Fugitive Recovery Works

Fugitive recovery relies on detective work and psychological manipulation to capture a fugitive. Most of the time, a fugitive recovery agent does not need to resort to violence in order to arrest a fugitive. Some of the tricks a fugitive recovery agent might use include:

  • Surveillance
  • Background checks
  • Contacting the friends and/or relatives of the individual to encourage them to convince the individual to surrender
  • Using tricks, like telling the fugitive he has won the lottery, and that he has to come and collect his prize

With regard to capturing an individual, this is an exceptional case in that fugitive recovery agents can enter the fugitive’s property without an arrest warrant.

Wanted Fugitives

As mentioned earlier, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, a.k.a. “Bonnie and Clyde,” serve as good examples of wanted fugitives. The couple, who headed up the Barrow Gang during the Great Depression, robbed and murdered people, including several police officers, throughout the U.S. Finally, police ambushed and killed them in Louisiana in 1934.

As far as other wanted fugitives go, the FBI has an ongoing list of the most wanted fugitives in the country. The only way the FBI will remove a name from the list is if:

  • The police capture the person
  • The person dies
  • The person (or agency) accusing the individual of a crime drops the charges against that person

In association with the wanted fugitives list, the FBI offers a reward for information that leads to the capture of one of these individuals. The reward starts at a minimum of $100,000, however the FBI has exceeded this amount in certain cases.

Fugitive Example Involving Slavery

The case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania provides perhaps an unexpected example of a fugitive in that the woman in question was a former slave. Pennsylvania law at the time (1832) prohibited people from taking Negroes out of the state for the purpose of making them slaves. During this time, Margaret Morgan moved to Pennsylvania from Maryland.

Morgan’s owner, John Ashmore, never formally emancipated her, but he did give her what was essentially her full freedom. However, Ashmore’s family disagreed with this and sent slavecatcher Edward Prigg to Pennsylvania to bring her back to Maryland. After completing this task, authorities arrested Prigg. The Court of Quarter Sessions of York County ultimately convicted Prigg for violating Pennsylvania law.

Appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court

Prigg appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that Pennsylvania’s law was unconstitutional, and that in no way was the state’s law going to supersede the authority of the U.S. Constitution, nor the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The Fugitive Slave Act allowed states to prohibit their officials from cooperating with the returning of fugitive slaves. As far as the Constitution’s role in this case, Prigg pointed to two clauses found in Article IV, Section 2, specifically:

“A person charged in any state with treason, felony or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall, on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime.”

“No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

The Court then had to decide whether Pennsylvania’s law did, in fact, violate the Fugitive Slave Act and the Constitution.


The Court ultimately reversed Prigg’s conviction and decided that yes, Pennsylvania law did, in fact, violate both the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act. However, the Court’s decision also left open the possibility for states to continue forbidding their officials from complying with the return of fugitive slaves, just as before. Specifically, the Court wrote:

“This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and was argued by counsel, on consideration whereof it is the opinion of this Court that the act of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania upon which the indictment in this case is founded is repugnant to the Constitution and laws of the United States, and therefore, void, and that the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upon the special verdict found in the case ought to have been that the said Edward Prigg was not guilty. It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged by this Court that the judgment of the said Supreme Court of Pennsylvania be, and the same is hereby, reversed.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bail Bond – A formal document securing a person’s temporary release from custody, based on his partial payment of the bail ordered by the court.