Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly The Hunter as Prey

By Clancy DuBos

JULY 20, 1998:  Not that the sheriff didn't have good arguments on his side -- although some were the same tired excuses offered by all outlaw hunters. Lee's problem was his conduct after the bust. He should have kept his mouth shut and at least pretended to be sorry. Instead, he arrogantly claimed to be as innocent as ... well, a dove.

Lee and nearly two dozen hunting buddies were busted last year for hunting doves in a baited field in Mississippi. Roughly half the party pleaded guilty to the charges; Lee and 11 others were found guilty after a trial before a federal magistrate in Jackson last week. The judge immediately fined them $750, placed them on probation and banned them from hunting migratory birds in North America for a year.

Lee claims the law is vague in terms of the burden it places on hunters. The leading case on the subject states that the presence of bait must be "reasonably" ascertainable by hunters "properly wishing to check" before hunting. The problem is, what's reasonable to a hunter might not be so to a game warden or magistrate. The lesson of the Lee case, then, is "hunter beware." That is, be really reasonable and proper in inspecting a field.

Federal agents found amounts of cracked corn on the field Lee was hunting. Lee said he didn't see it, although he admitted he did not make a detailed inspection of the field. He says he did, however, ask his host if the field was legal. Having received an affirmative answer, he assumed all was on the up and up.

That was his first mistake. You see, hunting over a baited field is virtually a "strict liability" crime; ignorance is no excuse. If a field is baited, the law presumes that the hunter put it there or knew about it.

Such a law makes sense, too. Otherwise, the feds would have to catch outlaws actually baiting a field and hunting over it. As much as I like hunting, there has to be some element of sport involved -- whether the quarry is mourning doves, mallard ducks or Chinese sheriffs. By imposing a strict standard in baiting cases, the law preserves the sport as well as the doves.

Lee's best argument is the fact that the field also contained more than a ton of wheat, which the magistrate concluded was legal because it was planted according to agricultural standards. Lee and his supporters argue, to no avail thus far, that the illegal corn was present in minute proportions compared to the legal wheat and thus could not have been present in sufficient quantities to attract migratory birds -- the legal standard for successful prosecution.

As proof, Lee notes that the two dozen or so shooters had bagged less than a dozen birds after several hours of hunting. Although doves are tough to hit on the wing, Lee is by all accounts a good shot. According to this argument, the case becomes one of "no harm, no foul."

Unfortunately for the sheriff and his pals, that's not what the law says. The law bans all hunting -- not just successful hunting -- over baited fields.

For sure, it would be an open-and-shut case if Lee and company had bagged a limit or more of doves. But, even as things stand, Lee left little room for pity when he publicly adopted a "no remorse" posture throughout this affair.

As a veteran lawman (indeed, as a former federal magistrate), Lee should well know the danger of copping an attitude when his ass is on the line. In the end, he may wind up being bagged more for arrogance than for illegal hunting.

In either case, I suspect, the doves are likely to rest easier this year.

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