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Lawmakers crack down on bounty hunters

Concern about a Red Wing bounty hunter known for traveling with a police dog, carrying a gun and wearing a badge prompted Minnesota lawmakers to restrict the types of uniforms and cars bail bondsman can use.

Bail Bondsmen Minnesota
This photo, provided by the Annandale, Minn., Police Department, shows bounty hunter Stew Peters posing for a photo with his dog Beckah in front of his company vehicle. A new state law forbids bail bondsmen, also known as bounty hunters, from using certain-colored uniforms or vehicles with emblems that the public might mistake for sworn officers.
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Concern about a Red Wing bounty hunter known for driving a vehicle with police-style markings, carrying a gun and wearing a badge prompted Minnesota lawmakers to restrict the types of uniforms and cars bail bondsmen can use.

Legislators passed a bill earlier this month that prohibits bail bondsmen from wearing uniforms that are blue, brown, green or maroon — colors worn by licensed peace officers in the state. It also prohibits bounty hunters from using vehicles that are the same color as those used by law enforcement officers and from having markings on their vehicles such as "a police shield, star or any similar emblem that is typically associated with a marked law enforcement vehicle."

Violators could be charged with a petty misdemeanor. Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill that takes effect on July 1.

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, pushed for the legislation after local law enforcement agencies raised concerns that a Red Wing bail bondsman was being mistaken for a licensed peace officer. Under current law, a bail bondsman can dress like a police officer and drive a vehicle that looks identical to a squad car. In order to violate the law, the individual would have to identify himself to someone as a police officer. Schmit said his bill was aimed at closing that loophole, noting restrictions already apply to security guards.

"When you've got a fake badge and insignia that looks like the real McCoy, a normal person is going to assume you are a law enforcement officer," Schmit said.

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Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin is among those who approached Schmit and asked for the law change. He made the request after his office and other law enforcement agencies started getting calls about Stew Peters, owner of Stew's Bail Bonds and U.S. Fugitive Recovery & Extradition .

"He was driving a car marked very much like a law enforcement vehicle, and we were getting a lot of feedback from the public about the confusion as to who this individual is, who does he represent," McNurlin said.

He said people called to report Peters had gone door to door asking questions while wearing a bulletproof vest, a gun and a gun belt. In one instance, he said a convenience store in Byron allowed Peters to view surveillance footage. And McNurlin said some law enforcement officers have been confused by Peters. In Wabasha County, officers spent two hours working with Peters thinking he was a federal agent, only to realize later he is a bail bondsman.

"He is one person out there doing it now. There could be several more to come if the bounty hunter craze would catch on or people were to realize that this is kind of a loophole in the law that would allow somebody to operate in this capacity," McNurlin said. "In my opinion, it is just not good for the public. They just don't know who the person is or what they represent."

On his LinkedIn page , Peters describes himself as a "senior investigator" for U.S. Fugitive Recovery and Extradition. It also features a photo of him wearing a bulletproof vest with the word "K-9" on it.

In an interview with the Post-Bulletin, Peters said he founded his bounty hunting business in 2014 and has eight full-time employees who either served in law enforcement or the military. Since that time, he claims, the company has helped with 104 arrests and of those, 81 were felonies that involved crimes against people including rape, murder and assault.

"It's not a hobby. It's not a game. It's a very dangerous job, and I take my responsibility very seriously," Peters said.

He said his business works with several law enforcement agencies in the state and spends a lot of time in North Minneapolis and the east side of St. Paul. In one case, he said he used his dog to help Metro Transit officers find a backpack worn by someone who was fleeing from them. Inside were two loaded .38 caliber guns and 20 grams of crack cocaine, Peters said.

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While he is not a licensed police officer, Peters said he did receive law-enforcement training. He said while living in Florida, he discovered he could make more money working as a bounty hunter and would be able to help put fugitives behind bars.

But what about the concern that people might think he is a licensed peace officer when he isn't?

"So what? What's the problem? When I jump out of my vehicle, I don't say, 'Hey, I'm the police' or 'Hey, I'm the sheriff.' And when people ask me, I blatantly tell them, 'I'm a bounty hunter,''' Peters said.

Peters is no stranger to the court system. He was arrested in October 1999 and charged with a misdemeanor count of impersonating an officer. The charge later was dismissed in a plea agreement in which he pleaded guilty to underage possession, also a misdemeanor. Peters said the charge was dropped because he was not impersonating an officer.

Peters hasn't faced any similar criminal charges since. His 12 court cases consist mostly of traffic violations and a second alcohol violation.

Peters got plenty of media attention in Rochester last fall when he helped bring a wanted fugitive back to southern Minnesota. Gregory Ahlers fled from law enforcement officers when they attempted to arrest him for two felony warrants in May 2014. In September, Ahlers was captured in Corona, Calif., and Peters delivered him to the Mower County Jail.

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson said more often than not, the presence of a bail bondsman in a case "muddies the water, in a lot of ways." He said when Ahlers was on the run last year, "there were a lot of people who were very confused as to who (Peters) was and what he was doing."

In fact, "I remember when the Ahlers thing was going on," Torgerson said. "I was driving home one day on South Broadway and (Peters) passed me in his SUV, and I was like, "What the heck was that?"

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Torgerson said there are instances where law enforcement agencies and bail bondsman are able to work together. "We shouldn't just throw all gloom and doom on it. There's been times we've been alerted; they tell us, 'we'll be in a car doing surveillance.' It doesn't happen regularly, but it has happened — and we've been able to help them," he said.

Peters made headlines in 2002 when he claimed to be the brother of a Hollywood actor, befriended then-Gov. Jesse Ventura's son, Tyrel, and lived in the governor's mansion in the summer of 2000 before the state police concluded he was an impostor and kicked him out.

State police later acknowledged the incident, and Peters, then 22, admitted he was the man.

"It was a wonderful experience," Peters told the Star Tribune at the time, describing himself as a rap artist. "If you sneak your way in there, I would recommend it. They had great food. It happened. I would do it again."

Tyrel Ventura, also 22 at the time, was quoted as saying he was young, naive and duped by Peters, "He conned me, what can I say?" Ventura said.

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Related Topics: CRIMEPOLICE
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