What is a Fugitive?

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  • Written By: Ken Black
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 02 February 2020
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A fugitive can mean a person who is trying to escape justice or a person who is trying to get away from an undesirable situation. The term typically applies to an individual who is being actively hunted by a law enforcement agency, but can apply metaphorically to any situation where a person is being pursued. A lesser known use of the word is when a person is trying to leave a situation where they may actually be victimized, such as a fugitive from Communism. In this sense, the term is close to being the same as refugee.

In most cases, a person becomes a fugitive once he or she fails to appear at a court date. Typically, these individuals get out of incarceration by posting some type of bail, or perhaps are released on their own recognizance. When the time comes for them to appear in court for pretrial motions, a trial, or sentencing, they fail to appear. Often, the individual is aware of the court date and makes a conscious decision not to appear.


Once the person with the court date has failed to appear, the court often issues an arrest warrant for the individual. If the person turns himself or herself in and explains the circumstances to the judge, the judge may set a new court date under the same release terms. Many times, the person will remain at large, thus causing the courts to call upon law enforcement to bring the individual in by force.

Depending on the crime in question, law enforcement may or may not make an active search for a fugitive. Many are caught on things such as routine traffic stops. When the officers do a quick background check using the subject's license, the outstanding arrest warrants come up, and the person is then taken into custody.

In cases where a fugitive is the subject of a concentrated manhunt, many law enforcement agencies are alerted to the situation. In many cases, law enforcement may work with private investigators hired by the bondsman to catch the fugitive. This is because the bondsman, who put up the money guaranteeing the person's appearance, will lose his money if he or she is not caught. A private investigator working for the bondsman is called a bounty hunter. Unlike what television programs may show, most arrests take place without incident.

Once a fugitive has been recaptured, the chances of a judge allowing the individual back on bail may be slim. If bail is set, it is often set at a much higher amount than the previous bail, thus ensuring the individual in question has a harder time meeting the requirement, and more to lose should he or she fail to show up for court. In addition, a person who fails to appear for court could face other charges, such as contempt of court.

Fugitives are also people who escape from incarceration, such as a jail or prison. Law enforcement often places a high priority on making sure these individuals are recaptured quickly. Many times, desperate criminals may commit other crimes in order to avoid going back into custody.


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