Bounty hunting: Foes of guns and abortion resurrect an old idea


Publish Date:
August 9, 2022
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Entrusting the public to enforce the laws and paying them with bounties was once how this country kept the lights on — or at least, the lanterns lit.

“Before you had a really strong central state, and before you had a professional civil service, a lot of government services were provided on a bounty or a fee-for-service basis,” said Stanford Law School professor David Freeman Engstrom.

Today the U.S. government rewards people who report fraudulent war contracts, terrorism, violations of federal environmental law and Medicaid fraud. The state of California allows financial rewards for people who sue to enforce its Proposition 65 toxics warning law.

And, of course, there’s bail-jumping, for which we still have “professional”  bounty hunters, though the subjects of bail bounties sign a contract surrendering many of their rights.

Not all bounties pay in money, Engstrom said — under federal environmental laws, a nonprofit is only able to recover attorney’s fees from a successful injunction against a polluter, or to protect an endangered species of frog. But the nonprofit is also able to demonstrate to its members that they’re “doing important work out in the world,” he said.

The act came roaring back, and today, Engstrom said, it’s the “purest form” of a bounty statute.

And California created its own modern version of bounty hunting with voter-approved Prop. 65. Since 1986, the state has invited residents to report violations of the environmental law that seeks to warn people about carcinogenic chemicals or those that affect reproduction in the products they consume.

The state permits citizens to bring private lawsuits for violations – and reap the rewards if they prevail in court or the company they sued decides to settle.

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