Poaching enforcement lax in Shawnee County, Kansas
The Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Jason Sawyers had never seen anything like it in years of enforcing Kansas hunting and fishing laws.
Sawyers, a lieutenant with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, spotted a large man parading around the ballparks at Lake Shawnee with a baby deer he had captured. The man had the fawn on a pink leash.
It was one of the most brazen examples of poaching for which Sawyers, based out of Topeka, ever issued a citation. Per procedure, he turned it over to the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.
“I begged them not to dismiss it,” Sawyers said.
But after several delays, the case was dropped — an outcome Sawyers says is all too common in the county.
Sawyers said lax prosecution of wildlife and parks violations — dismissed cases, paltry fines and firearms returned to poachers — has been an ongoing problem for much of his 14-year tenure. He produced a letter this past week that he wrote in 2001 to then-District Attorney Robert Hecht that Sawyers said temporarily spurred prosecutors to up the fines, which have since fallen again.
Lee McGowan, spokesman for current District Attorney Chad Taylor, said he believes Taylor’s administration has improved on previous administrations’ efforts to enforce hunting and fishing laws.
Sawyers says little has changed.
“Of the 12 counties that I supervise, Shawnee County has the highest amount of dismissals in my district by percentage,” Sawyers said.
Ryan Smidt, a conservation officer who works under Sawyers, said word is starting to spread throughout the county.
“People out in public are now just saying they won’t go get a license until they get caught because the only penalty will be having to buy a license,” Smidt said. “When you start hearing that from the public, that’s pretty bad.”
According to data provided by the department, wildlife and parks officers issued 62 citations — or “notices to appear” — in Shawnee County in 2011. Of those 62, eight resulted in guilty verdicts, and $700 in fines were handed out. Two were found not guilty, and at least 19 cases were dismissed. The remainder is either still in process or their outcomes haven’t been reported to the department.
McGowan said he had doubts about whether the data is accurate or up-to-date and would check into it. He said the district attorney’s office treats wildlife crimes the same as others.
“There’s no office-wide policy or system set in place to flag those cases any differently than any other cases they get,” McGowan said.
But Smidt said the interns who are assigned wildlife cases in the county prosecutor’s office usually show little interest in them. Sawyers said he believes it is a symptom of working in an urban county with more high-profile crime.
“The larger communities, we’ve got more difficulty,” Sawyers said. “They’ve got murders, rapes and everything else. But all they have to do is say, ‘Pay your fine, or you’re going to court.’ “
It is difficult to compare Shawnee County to other urban counties because reporting of the data on wildlife convictions appears scattershot. For example, the department’s data for 2011 lists 68 citations in Sedgwick County, with no guilty verdicts and $0 in fines assessed. But both Sedgwick County field officer Jason Barker and Sedgwick County District Attorney spokeswoman Georgia Cole agreed that isn’t accurate.
Cole said the county handed down about $7,800 in wildlife fines in 2011, and she isn’t sure why the department doesn’t have that data.
“We don’t do the reporting,” she said. “That’s the district court.”
All wildlife and parks violations are class C misdemeanors — less serious than other misdemeanors, but still jail-able offenses.
Fishing without a license is the crime most commonly cited by the department’s field officers. Smidt said failing to enforce that statute hamstrings the department’s ability to prevent more serious threats to public safety. The department doesn’t receive any of the money from fines, but much of its revenue comes from license purchases and federal funds tied to license purchases.
Sawyers said even more dangerous activities rarely bring more than a slap on the wrist in Shawnee County. For example, he said he busted a pair of people last year who were shooting turkeys without a license from the back of their truck with open alcohol containers at night while a 14-year-old with them waved a light around looking for wildlife — an illegal hunting strategy known as “spotlighting.”
Sawyers said he believed the three were issued a total of $200 in fines for the plethora of offenses. Spotlighting and hunting with the aid of a motor vehicle alone carry a minimum recommended fine of $225.
But what really chapped Sawyers is when he had to return the trio’s firearms.
“In 14 years I have never once kept a gun through the court (in Shawnee County),” Sawyers said. “Every one: You can poach a deer, pay $25 and get your gun back. If you go rob a store right now, I’m pretty sure they’re not going to give you your pistol back.”
On a number of occasions, Taylor has told county officials his office needs more funding to meet the area’s prosecution needs, most notably with regards to domestic violence.
Mark Gauntt, who runs the Shawnee County Hunter Education program, said poaching is worth fully prosecuting.
“It’s cheating the people that do it correctly out of opportunities if they take an animal,” Gauntt said. “It gives fodder to those people who don’t think hunting’s correct. It just adds to their agenda that all hunters are bad hunters.”
Sawyers and Smidt said they don’t want to advertise the county as a great place for poaching, but like that fawn at Lake Shawnee, they are at the end of their rope. They said the county has stopped issuing arrest warrants for poachers who don’t appear for their hearings, and local wildlife officers are on the verge of booking poachers into the county jail themselves rather than issuing notices to appear in court that they know won’t be enforced.
“We’re considering that as an option,” Sawyers said. “We’re not saying we’re going to arrest every person on everything, but if things don’t change, that’s an option for us.”
Information from: The Topeka Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.