Sometimes, those “you should have seen the one that got away” stories should come with a dictionary.
Probably because it’s so blasted cold, all the interesting hunting and fishing this past week happened in courtrooms.
In Minnesota, Roger Schmid lost his second appeal of a poaching conviction after giving up on just lying about it and trying to out-lawyer the prosecutor instead.
A Minnesota conservation officer found Schmid, 82 and probably old enough to know better, out in the woods during deer season, wearing hunter orange clothing, sitting inside a camouflaged blind and holding a loaded shotgun. He wasn’t holding a kill tag, though, so the officer ticketed him for hunting without a license – that despite Schmid’s claims that he wasn’t hunting deer.
While hunting around for an excuse, he variously claimed he was waiting for someone else, looking for a deer he had shot the day before, scouting for coyotes and just plain “nature watching.”
After his conviction in local court, he appealed to first the Minnesota appellate court and then the state supreme court, by now arguing that it’s not hunting – or in his case, poaching – if you don’t succeed.
The courts, fortunately, disagreed. By attempting to succeed, justices ruled, Schmid was hunting and thus needed a license.
That case makes sense. One from Florida let a poacher off the hook.
Commercial fisherman John Yates’ conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that it’s OK to destroy evidence as long as it’s fish.
Florida wildlife officers caught Yates fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with a boatload of undersized groupers. The officers told Yates the fish would be seized and he would be cited when he got back to the dock.
On shore, officers found the grouper had grown. Instead of 72 undersized fish, Yates’ boat by then held 69 legal fish. It seemed less miraculous when a crew member told investigators that Yates had tossed the illegal fish overboard.
Without the fish as evidence, the officers didn’t charge Yates with poaching. Instead, they charged him with violating the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which makes it a crime to alter or destroy evidence to obstruct a criminal investigation.
The Minnesota case boils down to the definition of hunting. The Florida case is about the definition of evidence.
Bizarrely, five of the nine Supreme Court justices ruled that the undersized fish weren’t evidence as far as federal investigators are concerned. The law makes it a crime to destroy “any record, document, or tangible object.”
Yates argued that the act was meant to prosecute financial crimes – it was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal – and that “tangible object” means only the things that accountants use.
Prosecutors argued that Congress meant the law to preserve all evidence – and that fish are tangible objects, just like the loaded shotgun Schmid was holding.
Elena Kagan, one of the dissenting justices, agreed. “A fisherman like John Yates, who dumps undersized fish to avoid a fine is no less blameworthy than one who shreds his vessel’s catch log for the same reason,” she said.
Contact Michael Eckert at email@example.com, (810) 989-6264, on Facebook @michaeleckert or on Twitter @michaeleckert.