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October 17, 2008   Email to Friend 

Bigger Fines, Stiffer Penalties Await Hunters
By David Rainer

Conservation Officer Jeff Brown checks the hunting licenses of Ray Metzler and his son, Drew.
Hunters accustomed to a slap on the wrist for violating game and fish laws in Alabama will be in for a rude awakening should they run afoul of conservation enforcement officers this fall. The Alabama Legislature passed House Bill 677 last session, which significantly increases the fines and penalties for a variety of game and fish laws and should provide a deterrent to those who feel they are above the law.

Numerous groups, including the Alabama Farmers Federation, encouraged the passage of the legislation. Also, the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board passed a resolution in support of the bill.

"In my book, it was a bad day for poachers and trespassers and a good day for landowners, hunters and anglers," said Tim Gothard of the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF). "Being an organization that has both landowners and hunters, we knew that the low fine rates had a direct impact on the ability of landowners, hunters, hunting clubs and outdoors enthusiasts in general being able to enjoy their properties in a manner that was safe and secure.

"We knew this would provide a more substantial deterrent to people participating in that type activity. If you fish in somebody's pond and get caught and it costs you $25, that's not a big deterrent. If you hunt without permission, the fines were not much of a deterrent. Our goal was, that the fines themselves would provide a much greater deterrent that would hopefully make people say, 'I'm not doing that.' When we have people, who regardless of the fines, decide to do it anyway and we do catch them, we've got something with more teeth in it to make them think twice before ever doing it again."

The new legislation increases fines and adds the possibility of jail time and the loss of hunting privileges to several violations. The penalties for taking game animals or birds at night increased. The fine was $1,000-$2,000. Now, someone convicted of that violation faces a fine of $2,000 to $3,000 with up to six months in jail and a revocation of all hunting privileges for three years.

The minimum fine for hunting without permission was $250. Now those convicted of that violation face a fine of $1,000 and, at the discretion of the court, a revocation of hunting privileges for one year. Upon conviction for a second offense, the fine increases to $2,000 with 10 to 30 days in jail and a one-year revocation of all hunting privileges.

"It was apparent that the punishment was not fitting the crime when our people would catch somebody for trespassing or poaching, and they would tell our people, 'Well, you can catch me four more times cheaper than I can join a hunting club,'" said Barnett Lawley, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). "The reason we have conservation enforcement officers is because people are breaking the law. You have to have a system that protects rights, but also punishes enough that people don't take those chances." Allan Andress, chief of enforcement with the ADCNR's Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, said the new fines cover a wide range of violations.

"We don't want people to get the idea that this is a revenue-producing measure. The focus of this legislation is to deter offenses, not to make money off of them. The money we get from fines is a very, very small fraction of our budget, only around three percent."

There is some concern that increased fines might also increase the risk for the conservation enforcement officers because lawbreakers might go to extraordinary lengths to keep from being caught.

"Obviously, we're always concerned about the safety of our people," Andress said. "But that is not a good reason for not going up on fines if the public good is served by it. It is very difficult to catch some of these offenders and when you do catch them, you want to make the penalty commensurate with the offense."

______________________________ The author is a writer with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.


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