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I Fought the Law

And I won. For the most part. Thanks to all who wrote and commented with advice. Here’s what happened.

As I wrote earlier in the week, I had a little misunderstanding with the game wardens while home for Christmas. The (optional) court date they gave me was January 30th, but I fly back to Scotland on the 6th.

I was planning on just getting an attorney and letting him deal with it, but I also wanted to be able to tell my story. So, my son and I first went to the court clerk, where the game warden had just brought the tickets in. She was very friendly, and asked me what happened. I told her, and she was appalled. She told me that she and her husband had a similar run-in when they were checking on some of their cows, and she knew how over-zealous some of those game wardens can be. She finished filing the charges, and sent me over to the district judge’s office.

I talked to the judge’s secretary. She also commented about this new crop of game wardens, and said that they had been having issues with some of the citations they had written. She made a comment about them needed to exercise a bit of common sense when dealing with people. She stuck her head in, asked if the judge could talk to me, and he said that he could.

The ticket had my Montana address on it, and at first he didn’t realize I was from the area. He said “Son, you had a gun and a spotlight in a vehicle. Here in southeastern Oklahoma, that’s a problem. What happened?” I told him who I was, and where the incident happened. (He has property not far from there.) I could see his demeanor change as I told my story. He said “Wait a second. You were on your own property?” I told him we were. He said “And they came all the way down to the house?” (The house is well off the road). He wasn’t happy. He then asked about Scotland, and if another court date would work. I told him that we were leaving this weekend. He said “Let me go and talk to the District Attorney.”

So, he went upstairs to the DA’s office for about 10 minutes. My son and I sat out in the hall, and I told him that this was a good sign. So far, nobody had been sympathetic to the game wardens’ actions. After a bit, the judge came out and said the DA wanted to see me. I went in and talked to him about my options. Again, he was sympathetic. He said “Look, I know that farmers around here need to get out and check on fences, cows, etc. They are almost always going to have a gun in their possession. So what they cited you for could be cited on private property all the time. In fact, I could have been cited for this before.” I was thinking “This is starting to sound pretty good.” He then said “But, the game wardens are going to want to contest this in court. I would rather not waste the court’s time on this, and I know that you aren’t going to be here after this week.”

He then handed me a copy of the game warden’s report, and asked if it looked like the facts were correct. I read it over, and other than one statement, it was written up correctly. That one statement was “Mr. Rapier said that they weren’t deer hunting, but were trying to spot raccoons.” I don’t know whether he meant to say that I actually said that we weren’t deer hunting (the word deer was never mentioned by me or the game warder) or whether he was trying to convey that information in his report. But I wanted to clarify that I was never questioned about whether I was deer hunting.

The mystery of how they arrived so quickly was also solved. They said we were spotted by an airplane flying directly overhead (looking for “illegal hunting activity”), and that it was called in at 20:48. They were very close by, and when it was called in they were pulling down the driveway 10 minutes later.

The DA said “Look, I don’t want to prosecute this. But I would like to make some kind of deal that satisfies everyone.” He turned to his computer and did some research. He said “How does this sound. I can give you a pair of options. First, we can try to work out a court date, get the game wardens in here, and contest the charges in court.” He told me that that face value of all of the 3 fines was actually about $800 EACH. He said “That’s one option. But I would rather do this. I will dismiss the first two charges – Hunting from a motor vehicle and spotlighting in exchange for a no contest plea and the minimum fine for hunting without a license. I will order return of the gun and light.”

We discussed this for a bit. When the game wardens showed up, I had a predator call in my pocket. When we had been out target practicing earlier, we had planned on calling up some coyotes. They had been making a lot of noise the past few nights. While we never used the call, we were walking around in the woods with a gun and would have shot a coyote had we seen one. That means that technically, we were hunting earlier in the day for coyotes (again, on private property). However, we weren’t hunting when the game wardens cited me.

I asked about the seriousness of the charge. In Oklahoma, here is the classification of the charge:

“Non-serious offenses” offenses which are not recorded in criminal history records, adapted from the list of FBI non-serious offenses.

It is essentially equivalent to a speeding ticket. So my options were to take this deal, or hire a lawyer and send him in to tell my side of the story without me being there (risky, in my opinion). So, I took the deal, paid a $200 fine plus $100 in court costs, and was done with it.

One more interesting thing happened when I was getting my Dad’s gun and light back. They let me look around the evidence locker. They had a bunch of automatic weapons that they had confiscated from a meth lab. There must have been a total of about 100 guns in there. Pretty cool. And once again, I got a sympathetic view from the deputy who released my gun. He apologized over the whole thing.

All in all, not a terrible way to end the episode. It was still a bad deal, but it could have turned out a lot worse.

January 5, 2008 Posted by | game wardens, law enforcement, off topic, Oklahoma | 11 Comments

The Game Wardens Make a House Call

I seldom post off-topic material, but this is definitely off-topic. So, if you would rather read only energy-related posts, I will have another post up in a couple of days.

While I won my $1,000 bet on oil prices by a whisker, an unfortunate incident happened during the last weekend of 2007 that wiped out my win.

I spent Christmas with my wife and kids on my parents’ farm in Oklahoma. During our time there, I tried to teach my kids something about sustainable living. One of the things I did was teach my 11-year old son how to shoot. We have a place on the farm that we use for target practice, and we worked on shooting with my dad’s .22 Magnum.

After we finished shooting, we went back to the house. After the last shot, I had left the spent shell in the chamber – intending to dump the rest of the shells out when we got home. We had some work to do – my son wanted to pick up some pecans (he had picked up 40 pounds and sold them for $20 already) and I was building a composter for my parents – so I put the gun in our rented minivan.

When it started to get dark, my son and I went inside. I began watching a football game with my dad, but my son wanted me to take him down to our pecan orchard to see if we could see any animals. I have done this since I was a kid – take a flashlight or spotlight, walk down to our pecan orchard, and get an idea of how the animal populations are faring. I have never in my life fired a shot when doing this. Many people do essentially the same thing by setting up game cameras that catch animals moving about at night. I don’t have one, so I just go shine the light and have a look.

At halftime of the Texas A&M – Penn State game, I told my son I would take him down and we would have a look. I picked up a handheld spotlight so we could walk down quietly – which is what I normally do – but it wasn’t working. The only other spotlight we had plugged into a cigarette lighter, so we grabbed it and hopped into the minivan. I had forgotten to take the gun out earlier, so I pushed it to the side and we set off.

We made the typical loop, which is less than 300 yards to the pecan orchard, shined the light, and returned home. We didn’t see anything, and we quickly returned home because I didn’t want to miss the start of the second half of the game. We had been gone less than 10 minutes.

As we were pulling through the gate back into the yard, a vehicle was coming down our driveway. My son asked who it was. I told him I didn’t know, but I knew as soon as they pulled in behind us and turned on the flashing lights. I said “It’s the game warden, but don’t worry, we didn’t do anything wrong.”

A second vehicle pulled up behind them, and a total of 4 very young (20-something) game wardens got out with guns drawn. They said through a loudspeaker “Get your hands up where we can see them”, followed by “Roll your window down.” I told my son not to make any sudden moves, and I very slowly rolled the window down.

They told us to step out, put us up against the vehicle, and frisked us. They questioned us about what we were doing, and I told them. I explained why we had the gun in the vehicle, and that there was a spent shell in the chamber. They quizzed my son about this, and he told them that we had been target practicing.

At about this time, my 5-year old son looked out the window, saw what was going on, and informed everyone in the house that there were several trucks in the yard. My dad and brother-in-law came out and asked what was going on. The four game wardens huddled up for a few minutes, and then the driver of the first vehicle came up and started writing me three tickets: 1. Hunting without a license; 2. Hunting with the aid of a motor vehicle; and 3. Spotlighting. Fortunately they are only misdemeanors, but the face value of the tickets is about $1500. They also confiscated my dad’s gun and spotlight.

While one was writing the tickets, another kept mouthing off at me. At one point, he said “This gun’s just been fired. When were you target practicing?” My son told him that we had been doing that at 4 p.m. (about 5 hours earlier). A few minutes later, he said “You don’t even have a valid driver’s license.” I caught myself just as I was about to ask if none of the four of them had any actual poachers that they could be out chasing. (I did think about the irony of driving a vehicle with Texas tags, while having a Montana driver’s license, living in Scotland, and getting written up in Oklahoma. But my Montana driver’s license is valid. I have to get a UK driver’s license after being in the country for 1 year, but I haven’t yet been in the UK for a year.)

My son was shivering, as neither of us was dressed to be outdoors in the cold. So I asked if he could go inside. They let him go. I told the one writing the ticket that I knew he was just doing his job, but we were not hunting. He responded “If you have a spotlight and a gun, then as far as I am concerned, you were hunting.” That’s probably true if you catch someone out on a public road at night, but I guarantee you there are lots of times on a farm that someone will have both a spotlight and a gun in a vehicle and not be hunting. And that was the situation with us.

Unfortunately, I was given a court date of January 30th. I fly back to Scotland on January 6th. But, no worries. I was told I can just go to the courthouse and pay the fine. Now what kind of message does that send to my son? We were not hunting, and he knew we were not hunting, but I am supposed to go pay a fine for a bunch of hunting violations?

Let’s review. First, I was in a rented minivan. I have to turn it back in to the rental car place at the airport in a few days. Who would hunt in that? There were two pickups at the house that we could have taken had we been hunting. We weren’t dressed to be outdoors. The gun was not ready to fire. They quizzed my 11-year old, and he told them that we weren’t hunting. My dad and brother-in-law told them we weren’t hunting. I told them we weren’t hunting. So, I am definitely going to contest the charges if I can see a judge or district attorney before we fly back home. I will probably lose, but even if it ends up costing me more money I won’t plead guilty to a charge that I didn’t commit. Had the ticket said something like “Possession of a gun and a spotlight in a vehicle”, then I would plead guilty to that. But the violations are all for hunting, and we weren’t hunting.

My son thinks the whole thing is terribly unfair (as does the rest of my family). But I have explained to them that game wardens often catch people with guns and spotlights, and probably 90% of the time they are hunting illegally. I certainly support their efforts. And unlike police officers, the vast majority of the people that game wardens deal with have guns. They have dangerous jobs. So they tend to be a very non-nonsense bunch. But I don’t think even the guy who wrote the ticket really thought we were hunting. He just thought he could make that charge stick.

What I can’t figure out is how they got there so fast. We live out in the sticks, and yet 2 truckloads of game wardens – none from the closest town – were there in less than 10 minutes. My guess is that they had been called out on someone else, and just happened to be in the area. They do fly airplanes over looking for poachers, so if they were in the area and the plane spotted us immediately, that could explain it.

The incident certainly put a damper on our holiday. One good thing may come out of it, though. My son got a taste of what it’s like to have a run-in with the law, and he got that taste at an impressionable age. I told him to remember how scared he was when we were being frisked; that this was the sort of unpleasantness that comes from breaking the law. So maybe it will ultimately be an incentive for him to always stay on the right side of the law.

January 2, 2008 Posted by | game wardens, law enforcement, off topic, Oklahoma | 42 Comments