Along The Trail 3-6-14

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Editor’s Note: This is a column written by Switzerland County’s David Hewitt. The articles center on all things ‘outdoors’, from hunting and fishing to woodsmanship.

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Let me state that I’m not a fan of politicians.

I enjoy the political process, but I’ve worked in public service for far too many years and have seen the good and bad when it comes to politics and in my opinion, there have been more bad than good.

Often times, well meaning elected officials think they are doing the right thing and want to make positive changes, but something seems to get lost along the way, particularly at the state and federal level. Lobbyists, political insiders and big money all have a way of influencing and maybe even corrupting our elected officials. But, sometimes, the politicians on their own accord just have a bad idea.

That seems to be the case with the Indiana Senator behind Senate Bill #52 in the current legislative session. In a nutshell, SB 52 basically decriminalizes many of the offenses in Title 14 of the Indiana Code and most of those offenses pertain to our state’s fish and game laws and the Department of Natural Resources.

You might ask yourself “So what?” or “What does that mean?”

What it means is that most current wildlife laws on the books that are criminal misdemeanors will now become infractions. In layman’s terms it means that violating a hunting or fishing law will now be the equivalent of a minor speeding ticket or running a stop sign if this bill passes into law. That means a violator can break the law, receive no more than a slap on the wrist from the court system, pay a minimal fine and be on his way not much worse for wear.

The proponents of the bill are trying to sell it along with a bigger plan of streamlining the State’s backed up judicial system by changing many of the criminal offenses. The primary argument is that most prosecutors around the state either don’t or won’t prosecute fish and game violations and if they do, the cases are pled down to a lesser crime or deferred.

Many folks might just look at it as “It’s just a deer” or “It’s only a hunting violation” or “he’s just fishing without a license”, but the State’s fish and wildlife belong to all of its residents, for all of us to enjoy. Poaching in particular is no different than stealing. If someone poaches a deer, turkey or other game, that is one less deer that a legal hunter has the opportunity to harvest or the casual observer of wildlife gets to enjoy.

In it’s current form, the bill neuters the fish and game penalties and by moving them down to the lowest level of infractions, there is no fear of being caught and barely any incentive to not violate in the future.

Essentially, the deterrent factor is being removed.

The bill has had very little input from members of the DNR and even less from those charged with enforcing the laws. I have spoken to several conservation officers about the bill, and while most agree that there needs to be a review of Title 14 laws, decriminalizing the fish and game violations is not in the State’s best interest or the interest of sportsmen.

Many of the officers are seriously concerned with how the changes will effect the way they conduct investigations in the field and how they confront armed persons in remote areas. The burdens, rules and restrictions between civil infractions and criminal misdemeanors and felonies are widely different and this bill has the potential to put the officers on their heels and fighting an uphill battle when it comes to enforcement.

The bill has also included the wording “knowingly and intentionally” to the violations that do remain criminal offenses, thus actually making ignorance of the law a defense.

I, for one am not in favor of the bill in its current version, but it appears to have legs underneath it and is moving through the legislative process. Several sportsman’s groups across the state have come out against SB 52 and I would urge anyone that feels the same way to contact your local State Representative and voice your concerns.

- David Hewitt