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By Robert Rapier on Jan 2, 2008 with no responses

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.