Bounty hunters will have to be licensed, trained and registered in California under a bill signed into law Friday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
AB 2043 passed both houses of the state Legislature on Aug. 25. The law was inspired in part by the fatal shooting of David Spann in his Palm Springs home in April 2021 by a man who was illegally working as a bounty hunter in spite of felony criminal convictions.
Spann's relatives had implored the state to tighten regulation of the bail industry and specifically bounty hunters. William Spann, David's father, said Friday by phone that the signing of the bill was "very good news that has been needed for some time."
"It will give David's death more meaning," William Spann said. "Because of David's sacrifice, more people won't end up in the same situation he was in. And hopefully, this will alleviate some pain for ourselves and other families."
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, introduced AB 2043 in February, and it passed on a predominantly partisan line, although some Republicans did vote in favor.
"Public safety is paramount and having individuals acting as law enforcement without proper weapons training, background checks, and understanding of their limitations creates a scenario wherein the bounty hunter can cause harm to innocent bystanders and those they are tracking," said Jones-Sawyer in a statement Friday. "By signing this bill, Governor Newsom has ensured public safety and helped to standardize an industry that has a history of recklessness."
In 2018, then-state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones recommended licensing bounty hunters, but there had been no action until now.
Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara said the new law will help the department protect the public.
"Governor Newsom's signing of AB 2043 mandating for the first time in California that bounty hunters be regulated and licensed by my department gives us more tools to protect the public from for-profit bail industry abuses," said Lara. "Bounty hunters have been accused of serious crimes including murder, extortion, and kidnapping, and this new law helps us prevent future violations of law that threaten public safety."
A shooting, a murder charge and a new law
David Spann, 33, was fatally shot on the second floor of his apartment in the early morning of April 23, 2021. Spann had negotiated his own bail with Melissa Lippert of Justice Bail Bonds of Temecula weeks before, stemming from a misdemeanor arrest for allegedly violating a restraining order.
He had agreed to be regularly tested for drugs and to wear a GPS monitoring device. When his monitoring device was somehow incapacitated, Lippert contracted a second bail agent, Jose Navarro, to apprehend him and return him to jail. Navarro, in turn, hired Fabian Hector Herrera to make the arrest.
Palm Springs police were dispatched to Spann's E. Via Escuela condo around 2 a.m. after he called saying his home had been broken into and Herrera called saying he was in need of help. Spann was shot within minutes of the police arriving, and he died at the scene. There were no active warrants for his arrest.
The shooting spotlighted a glaring exception among the California Department of Insurance's bail industry regulatory practices.
"No agency regulates Bail Recovery Persons," said Deputy Insurance Commissioner Michael Soller in response to The Desert Sun's questions days after Spann's death.
While the department regulates the state's bail industry and requires bail agents to be licensed, it had not required bounty hunters, often called bail fugitive recovery persons, to be similarly licensed.
At the time, bounty hunters were only required to have proof that they had completed certain classes and had not been convicted of a felony.
The Desert Sun obtained body camera footage from several police dispatched to the scene of the Spann shooting. Officers Rhett Arden and Emmi Kramer entered Spann's condo through a splintered front door that Herrera had used a sledgehammer to destroy.
Herrera can be seen in the footage standing on a flight of stairs holding Spann at gunpoint. Lisa Vargas, his mother, was also on the second floor. Spann can be heard in the footage repeatedly telling them all to leave his home.
Soon before Arden used a Taser on Spann, who was holding a knife, he can be heard asking Herrera: "You got lethal?" Herrera affirmed.
When Arden fired his Taser, Spann dropped to one knee before rising and moving toward Herrera and Arden. "Shoot," Arden can be heard saying, and Herrera fired the lethal shot soon after.
Further video footage shows not only the chaotic nature of the confrontation, but its aftermath. Minutes after the shooting, Herrera can be seen walking back to his Ford Crown Victoria with a sledgehammer slung over his shoulder, greeting arriving police.
Several sergeants can be heard questioning whether or not the confrontation was an "officer-involved shooting," a term used by law enforcement to describe police use of force.
Hours after the shooting the Riverside County Sheriff's Department announced that Herrera had been booked and would be charged with murder. Court records show he has a felony criminal history restricting him from working as a bounty hunter and making it illegal for him to possess the gun he fired the fatal shot with.
Vargas also was arrested after being on the run for about a month and charged with murder and perjury for allegedly buying the gun for Herrera. Both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Then Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes criticized the county and state for not regulating bounty hunters more closely, saying soon after the shooting that his officers were put in danger by the confrontation Herrera triggered.
"Bail agents are armed with firearms and you would hope that they have the appropriate training, licensing and checks and balances within their own company and some level of regulation - whether that be at the county level or the state level - to periodically check on the validity of anybody's licensing," Reyes said last May.
The two bail agents who hired Herrera both faced the revocation of their bail agent licenses after the shooting. Lippert's license was restricted, but not revoked. A hearing regarding Navarro's license is scheduled in the coming months.
The Desert Sun revealed that Jones had recommended a bounty hunter license in 2018 after a hearing the year before on how the bail industry could better be regulated. AB 2043 was introduced to the legislature the day after that story published.
As the bill was being introduced to the legislature, Spann's survivors sued the City of Palm Springs, its police department and the bail agents involved, claiming David Spann was wrongfully killed.
Another investigation by the newspaper revealed that the department has granted or maintained bail agent licenses for more than 30 felons since 2010.
Jones-Sawyer often cited the Palm Springs shooting as he shepherded the bill through the legislature for months and as it received unanimous votes in favor in several committees. Notably, some Republicans voted in favor of it, including Assemblymember Randy Voepel, a Republican who represents the Idyllwild area and parts of San Diego County. Voepel said such a license had been needed for decades.
State Sen. Melissa Melendez, a Republican whose district includes the Coachella Valley, voted against it in both the Senate's insurance committee and during the floor vote. Her office never responded to questions from The Desert Sun to explain her opposition.
Spann's brother, Bill, has repeatedly expressed his support for the bill, believing it could help protect others against similar confrontations with agents of the bail industry in the future.
"If this bill saves just one life, then all of the hard work and effort we all put in getting it passed was well worth it and my brother didn't die in vain," Bill Spann said when the bill passed in August.
Christopher Damien covers public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him at @chris_a_damien.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: California mandates bounty hunter licensing after Palm Springs killing