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.

33 thoughts on “The Game Wardens Make a House Call”

  1. Your post may at first glance seem to be off the topic of energy — but there is an important connection.

    The situation you got caught in, Robert — an honest person doing nothing wrong who finds he may have broken a bunch of laws — is exactly where extremists are taking energy.

    Wrong kind of washing machine? Criminal! Non-permitted light bulb? Law-breaker! Too much/not enough ethanol in your gasoline at certain times of year? — Read the bum his rights!

    If you take the 50 – 100 year view, our society has used the immense productivity of fossil fuels to build the giant overhead of an overly complex legal system where almost everyone is offending against some statute or other almost all the time. And now we are applying the same legalistic stupidity to energy — at a time when tightening fossil fuels mean we will no longer be able to afford such wasted efforts.

    Change is needed! Actually, change is coming whether we like it or not. Only question is — how?

    Tough break with the citations, by the way. Good luck with the judge. And happy new year!

  2. The last time I went deer hunting, in 1986 or so, I had an incident that was similar. We owned around 2000 acres of farmland at the time (all un-posted and public hunting allowed) and my friend and I were driving around tree lines (with unloaded rifles) on our land as well as a neighbor’s land and were stopped by a game warden. We had valid hunting licenses, proper equipment and unloaded rifles.

    He informed us that the land was posted for no hunting and inquired if we had permission. I told him that we didn’t have explicit permission from the owner, but while we were discussing this, the land owner happened to drive up. He knew who I was and said it was no problem. The game warden let us go and I thought that was the end of that.

    About 3 weeks later the game warden showed up at our farm and gives me a $150 ticket for hunting on posted land without permission. He also went to my friends house and gave him a $150 ticket. I asked the warden how he could do that after the land owner said it was ok. The warden told me that he was the one charging us, not the land owner and permission after the fact was irrelevant.

    I felt that this was obviously a shortage in some sort of ticket quota that was counted up after hunting season. I just paid the fine. Hunting isn’t really my thing, but that incident was upsetting enough that I never bothered to go out again.

    I would like my kids to know something of sustainable living too, but I think I would probably show them how to raise livestock before I took them out hunting wild game.

  3. That stinks. I wouldn’t plead guilty to something I didn’t do, either. Get an attorney and fight it. Is there any evidence at the site where you were shooting? If so, you may want to collect it while you can. Note that it may well be that having a gun in the back of the vehicle not inside a locked container is a violation, albeit one you were not charged with.

  4. I agree with Doug. What ever happened to the right to a speedy trial in this country? I had a somewhat similar situation once, where I was passing through an area on a long road trip. I was pulled over and finding nothing else wrong, the officer cited me for expired license (while knowing damned well that people in my situation are exempt from expired licenses in both his state and mine). The ticket carried a mandatory court appearance, even though there was no way I could be back in that area on that day (as in your case, about a month later). The real icing on the cake was when the officer told me that he could not let me drive away with an expired license and that I had to find someone to take over for me or wait until he was gone (wink) because his camera was on and he could not be seen letting me drive away. I did manage to contact the DA and got the case dismissed, but like you, I was extremely pissed because I have always tried to do the right thing and support police officers in doing their jobs.

    My segway into relating this to energy is this: I fear that the laws we have put a lot of pressure on law enforcement to become a revenue producing arm of the government, where they are sent out to catch people speeding and collect fines rather than concentrate on more destructive crimes, like reckless driving, etc. The pressure to write tickets for fines distracts them from doing their real jobs of protecting citizens (although speeding in poor conditions can indeed be dangerous, it often is not, and I think Rob, as a former Montana resident could corroborate that). This also why I am against using fuel taxes to encourage energy efficiency. While I support police officers, I am highly skeptical of elected officials.

  5. Welcome back to the police state! Doesn’t it make you glad to be home? At least they didn’t accuse you of being a terrorist.

  6. The one part of the story that doesn’t make sense is the warden’s claim that the gun had been fired recently. It should have been stone cold after sitting outside in the car for hours, making it easy to prove that you had not fired it.

  7. Robert – which county? (Jefferson, I’m guessing.)

    This may cost you some money, but you really need to fight. You don’t want a firearms conviction, even a misdemeanor, on your record. Call the judge ASAP. It is a small town in a small county, you may even be able to call him at home. If it were me I would go to the courthouse and sit outside his office until he agrees to see you.

    You did nothing wrong. Admit to showing poor judgement, you didn’t realize how what you were doing could be misinterpreted. Unless they caught you in the act, or you had game in the vehicle, there is absolutely no evidence that you were hunting. The state must prove you did something wrong and prove that you had criminal intent. From the game warden’s perspective it looked pretty suspicious. Poaching and illegal hunting is a big problem in rural Oklahoma.

    Think of it this way, if you pulled up in front of a convenience store with a gun in the car they couldn’t arrest you for trying to rob the store, even though you had the request tools to do so. The game warden should have waited for you to discharge the weapon.

    When you get back to the UK you should also contact both your supervisor and HR to tell them what happened. Send them an e-mail and ask for a reply back. Save the e-mails both electronically and a paper copy.

  8. Ignore spelling errors. I meant “requisite”.

    I don’t hunt or fish any more because of stories like this. Revenues from hunting licenses are used to support wildlife management and to pay for game wardens and equipment. States are steadily losing income as hunting becomes less popular. This puts more pressure on game wardens to write violations.

    To add insult to injury, Texas A&M blew a 14-0 lead in the game. Let’s hope the Sooners will do much better tonight.

    BTW – you can hire a local attorney and you and your son can swear out an affidavit telling your side of the story. You can effectively fight this without having to appear in person. An attorney should be able to advise you.

  9. “My guess is that they had been called out on someone else, and just happened to be in the area.”

    I would expect the answer would be public domain knowledge, wouldn’t you ?


  10. NYMEX crude just crossed the $100 mark. Let’s see where it closes the day, the speculators are out.

    If this were a speeding ticket, or some trivial offense you should pay the fine and forget about it. When a firearm is involved that is very different – it is in the league with DUI. (The $1,500 fine and confiscating the gun should tell you that.) These are the kind of things that can come back to haunt you many years later.

    Talk to an attorney. Even if you agree to plead out, negotiate some kind of deferred judgement or deferred prosecution that erases any conviction from your record subject to keeping out of trouble (shouldn’t be too hard for you).

  11. You might consider going to the game warden’s office and speaking to their chief or their supervisor about this case. Bring anything with you relevant to your unique situation such as your UK passport, plane tickets, vehicle rental documents, etc.

    It’s possible they may decide to drop the matter if they believe they will look like complete idiots in court. They really do have more important things to do and may wisely decide to direct their limited resources elsewhere.

  12. Sorry to hear that. If you pay the fines, consider them as educational fees about how the justice system works (it makes you feel better if you really think about it as voluntarily paid money for the said service, instead of an unjust forced penalty). 20 year olds get to decide who’s guilty and who’s not, since the judges are prone to believe law enforcement representatives.
    This happened to me, paid $300 in fines for not wearing a seat belt. Cop testified against me in court, outright lying about what she saw and not. After that my belief in the justice system got a deep dent, and I’m nowadays trying to avoid anything that has to do with it.

    Happy new year though!

  13. “NYMEX crude just crossed the $100 mark. Let’s see where it closes the day, the speculators are out.”

    Well, if it weren’t for the other thing, I’d say you lived a charmed life.

    (You still might find an easy out in that one.)

  14. I’ve lived all over the world and all around the U.S. My dad’s family lives in Oklahoma, and in my experience Oklahoma fish & game wardens are all mouthy barney smiths just like the ones you encountered, especially if they think you’re from out of state and *especially* if you have Texas tags on your truck.

  15. The one part of the story that doesn’t make sense is the warden’s claim that the gun had been fired recently.

    He sniffed the spent shell and declared that it was freshly fired. It made a terrible impression on my son to see a law enforcement officer claim that the gun was just fired when it had actually last been fired 5 hours earlier. Suddenly the lawman looks like an idiot to him.

  16. NYMEX crude just crossed the $100 mark. Let’s see where it closes the day, the speculators are out.

    They’ve been out all year. Now that everyone’s got the memo about stagflation investors are rushing into the headline commodities, oil and gold. Gold is getting way ahead when compared with the move in (far more valuable) platinum. The differential between oil and nat gas is even more stark. Sheesh if oil’s going to $150 and NG is going to turn around and head below $7, at what point do homes in the northeast switch fuels, at what point do we start running vehicles on NG? Something’s definitely wrong with this picture. I wish I were running the SPR – I’d dump 100mb onto the market and let these guys take it up their hindparts.

  17. Well, Feb 2008 NYMEX crude settled for $99.17 today but traded briefly at $100 around lunch time. I’m wondering how many contracts actually got done at that price. Perhaps somebody just wanted bragging rights. Who knows, maybe it will close above $100 tomorrow. I’ve read a lot of interesting excuses justifying the run up.

  18. Here’s another possible lesson your son might just learn: Disrespect for the law. IMO EITHER enforcement of unjust laws OR lack of enforcement for just ones breads disrespect for all laws – and for law enforcement.

  19. Jeez, and i thought the LAPD was bad.
    Sorry about the event, RR. At least no one was hurt. In the end, that is what counts.

  20. Dear Robert,

    Personally, I think you gave your son the wrong impression about staying on the right side of the law: as you said, you hadn’t broken any law. In my opinion, what you should have impressed upon your son was this experience shows all of us just how important it is protect our rights as citizens.

    You, yourself, said that the officer did not think you were guilty but just thought he could make the charges stick. Isn’t it time we all stand up against ever increasing government infringement on citizen rights?

    By the way, thanks for all of the great posts in 2008!


  21. I agree with tommyguy. When your son sees the law behaving in that manner, he will learn to resent them.

  22. Ha! Socialism Karma comes back and bites you on the ass.

    “What government giveth it can taketh away…”

  23. John Mellencamp said it best:

    They like to get you in a compromising position
    They like to get you there and smile in your face
    They think, they’re so cute when they got you in that condition
    Well I think, it’s a total, total disgrace

    I fight authority, authority always wins
    I fight authority, authority always wins
    I been doing it, since I was a young kid
    Ive come out grinnin
    I fight authority, authority always wins

    So I call up my preacher
    I say: gimme strength for round 5
    He said: you dont need no strength, you need to grow up, son
    I said: growing up leads to growing old and then to dying,
    And dying to me dont sound like all that much fun

    I fight authority, authority always wins
    I fight authority, authority always wins
    I been doing it, since I was a young kid
    Ive come out grinnin
    I fight authority, authority always wins

  24. Several thoughts:

    1) It is getting nasty out there, and will be getting a lot nastier in the future. Best to lay low, avoid doing anything that might draw the attention of the authorities to oneself if it can possibly be avoided. Democracy and civil rights and all that was nice while it lasted, but that era is drawing to a close along with cheap energy and a booming economy. The future is going to be increasingly bleak and scary. Law enforcement is going to be increasingly a brutal tool of social control. Stay out of their way and out of their sight.

    2) While laws are sometimes stupid and unfair, you’ve got to decide if violating them are really worth the risks involved with getting on the wrong side of the law enforcement authorities. If it is a matter of being able to eat or starve, maybe so. If it is a matter of maybe shaving a few seconds off your ETA by speeding, probably not.

    3) People who are not locals and are not well known to the local law enforcement authorities are at special risk. This is probably part of what was behind RR’s problem, and several other commentators have mentioned other examples. For people thinking that they are going to escape the cities to a rural retreat, this could be a possible flaw in their plans.

    4) People who are obviously much more well off than the average law enforcement officer, but not enough of a big shot to be able to pull the strings of the local politicians, are also at greater risk. Your typical law enforcement officer is likely to become increasingly resentful toward those who are obviously not suffering what they and their families are suffering; if they see that you are not well connected, they see a target that they can vent their hostility upon. I don’t know if this dynamic might have been at work in RR’s case or not; it could be in the future.

    5) I agree with those that have advised RR to try to fight against this becoming something on his permanent record. You want to try to avoid getting any kind of criminal record if you can possibly help it. On the other hand, if RR were facing a possible jail sentence, then I’d strongly advise trying to cut whatever deal he could get to avoid risking jail. You should ALWAYS do everything you can to avoid going to jail – ALWAYS. Jails are extremely dangerous places, and are very likely to become much more so.

    WNC Observer

  25. I don’t think they have a case. They did not catch you with gun in hand. The gun wasn’t loaded. There were no dead animals in the vehicle (or anywhere else). Witnesses support your version of events. Whoever reported you cannot claim to have heard gunshots, all he saw was the light. There is almost certainly evidence at the place where you were shooting. They don’t even have a good circumstantial case – just supposition.

  26. I believe the only lesson your son is going to get out of this is that cops are pigs. If you’ve raised him to look for the truth, and have a feeling you have, than he just got a heavy dose of it and he’s going to figure it out.

    This is definitely something that needs to be contested because these kinds of things build. If you goof up and someone looks at your record they’re much more likely to let you go than if you have a string of violations…like building a snowball. I’d take “kingofkaty”s advice and contact a judge right away, if only to see if you can get it resolved before you have to leave. It may also be a good idea to contact whatever branch the goons report to and see if there have been any complaints lodged against them in the past. You don’t want anything like this hanging around you

  27. Do yourself a favor and throw yourself upon the mercy of the court. You were most certainly in violation of law. You were shining a light in search of game animals and had accessible to you a firearm. Whether you had killed anything, or intended to, is irrelevent. The best you can hope for is to try and make the judge believe you weren’t actually trying to kill anything. Maybe he will help you out. An attorney is going to cost you alot of money, and if you follow the advise of most of these yahoos on here, and go lodging complaints on the officers and what not, they are most certainly not going to want to work with your attorney and help you out when your court date comes. The atty will be forced to go to trial, and all the state must prove is that you were shining a light, and had a firearm readily accessible to you. On top of losing the case, you will probably lose the gun permanently, pay huge fines, and lose future hunting privledges in the state for several years. Throw yourself on the mercy of the court, pay less (if any) money, hopefully keep your license and get your gun back, and stay on good terms with the local law enforcement. Lets face it, you were wrong, and you got caught. Should have taken the gun to the house when you realized it was in the van; 30 seconds that could have saved you lots……

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