Should Maine's Deer Driving Law Be Re-Examined?|
When I first moved to Maine back in 1979, one of my neighbors whom I had just met offered to take me along deer hunting, to learn the area. At daybreak of the first day we arrived at a logging road where half a dozen other vehicles were parked. We got out and a hunter walked up and told me to reach into the hat and pull a number. From past experience in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a Vermont Game Warden, I knew what was happening without explanation. I immediately asked for a ride home.
The practice of driving deer has been frowned upon by serious hunters in every state I’ve visited and I personally consider the practice to be “unsportsmanlike.” Drawing numbers, the recipients of numbers 1-6 were designated drivers while 7-12 were to take positions at the far end of the piece to be moved. They would shoot any legal deer that came through as the drivers forced any and all deer to flee. A random drawing would take place at the end of the drive to determine who would tag the deer.
To varying extents this practice still lives on throughout the Maine woods and the Maine Warden Service is once again being questioned about how they enforce the current statute. The large number of complaints received during the regular firearms season of 2011 is the basis for this month’s “Question of the Month.”
Before I post the verbatim script of the deer driving law, let me relay a few of the complaints as offered by hunters. A Waterboro landowner who prefers to remain nameless due to a pending criminal case (deer driving) filed against him, called me with his side of the incident. “I was hunting on my own property which I have always left open to the public for hunting. Sometime during the day two of my employees were coming onto the property and going to their regular deer stands about half a mile from where I stood watch, in a gravel pit.” He explained.
“Without warning a Game Warden came into the pit at a high rate of speed, jumped out and ordered me to stay put. He then was joined by two other wardens who rounded up 6-8 hunters, including the two that were my employees that I hadn’t even known were in the area at the time. We were all handed a citation for deer driving.” He continued.
“I tried to explain that I was on my own property and had no knowledge of anyone other than my two employees that were coming in sometime that day. I asked how I could get a ticket when I didn’t even know the others were coming in from the adjacent woods. The warden allegedly responded that “everyone here gets one.” They wrote the tickets and left.”
Other accounts, mostly on the last Saturday of the regular firearms season included complaints that hunters were descended upon by multiple wardens “Like a SWAT Team” and “all day the Warden trucks were running around with blue lights and sirens and they had an airplane flying low over the woods that scared most of the deer.”
Maine law, as written describes driving deer as follows:
“Driving deer or taking part in a deer drive is unlawful, except that 3 or fewer persons may
hunt together, without the aid of noisemaking devices. Driving deer is an organized or
planned effort to pursue, drive, chase or otherwise frighten or cause deer to move in
the direction of any person(s) who are part of the organized or planned hunt and known to
be waiting for the deer.”
I’m not a lawyer nor am I a law enforcement officer anymore but my previous years in law enforcement causes me to question how anyone could be charged with this violation, given that so much is written into the law demanding proof of intent. How does the Maine Warden Service determine that a person sitting on a deer stand could possibly know when other unknown hunters were moving through the woods in an organized attempt to drive deer?
I visited the gravel pit and took photos of the skid marks in the gravel where the landowner said the Warden Service truck skidded to a stop. We both wondered what violation was committed in the presence of the speeding warden that allowed for the issuance of a ticket. What could the airplane warden possible see that would document the incident?
Other law enforcement officers advised me that not all violations need to be strictly “in view” of the officer issuing a citation. However, officers are still prohibited from asking pointing or leading questions that can only be answered by the suspected violator in a manner that constitutes self-incrimination. A traffic cop cannot, for instance ask, “Where you travelling 50 m.p.h in a zone posted for 35 m.p.h? That’s why most simply ask how fast were you travelling. If you offer the incriminating information so be it.
If the Warden asks the deer driving suspect, “Did you know those other hunters were driving deer toward you?” and you answer ‘Yes” the case will probably be tossed out. Look back at the wording of the statute for words like “organized, planned effort” and “person(s) who are part of the planned hunt and known to be waiting for the deer.” On it’s face, that’s quite a lot of proving “intent” from where I sit.
During interviews with a number of hunters ticketed, the majority expressed the fear that wardens simply charge hunters even if they don’t have definitive proof, knowing that most will simply pay the fine and not go to court.
“I didn’t break the law.” Says one hunter who was charged with deer driving, “Now if I want to fight the ticket I’ll lose a day of work to plead not guilty, probably have to hire a lawyer and lose more days when the trial comes up. Then it still may come down to my word against the Game Warden.”
Another hunter reported the warden was so intent on writing a ticket that he failed to see that the license handed him was for last year. I have a 2011 license but handed him the wrong one and that’s the number on my ticket.
I called the York County Court to ask what the fine would be and was told by the Clerk that fines are up to the judge based on the facts presented by the officer. She further told me the fine was changed in 2003 to make deer driving a Class E crime, punishable by up to $1,000 fine and possible jail time. One hunter also quoted a game warden as saying, “You won’t lose your license.” I can’t find it anywhere in the Title 12 statutes that protects hunters from losing their license if convicted of a title 12 law. I found plenty that leaves revocations up to the Commissioner. Was this encouragement by the warden to get the individual to pay up rather than fight?
Again I remind readers that the above information is presented to offer the Maine Service the opportunity to answer the mainline question of the month, “Should Maine’s deer driving law be re-examined?” If the Maine Warden Service chooses to offer a rebuttable to this article, here are the specific questions I would like answered, on behalf of all Maine deer hunters.
1. Research shows the laws was passed as a “Hunter Safety” measure. Does a deer driving complaint from a Warden pilot rise to the level of a blue light and siren response?
2. Is it necessary for multiple wardens to rush onto the scene in an overly officious manner without regard to the innocence of other hunter bystanders?
3. How many deer driving citations were issued during the 2011 deer season?
4. What is the breakdown by county of those citations? (Is York County being singled out (profiled)?
5. Are each of the citations backed by sufficient proof of guilt?
6. How were multiple suspect interviewed. What questions verbatim were asked. Were they leading or of the type that can only be answered by self-incrimination?
7. Is the Warden Service statewide satisfied with the current wording of the der driving law?
This piece is only the second I have published that calls the Maine Warden Service conduct into question. The last time was during the period of time that Game Wardens were accused of treating hunters as though they were guilty until proven innocent. The same time I criticized Warden Service supervisors of urinating on recruits during training exercises.
The Maine Warden Service is “our” police force; the hunters, anglers and all outdoor recreation license-holders. We pay them, I thought, to protect all species of fish and wildlife and to promote the related sports. Hunters and other license-holders should expect that interactions with the Warden Service will be pleasant, unless the individual among us is committing a violation that occurs in plain sight of the officer.
More than half the people I interviewed who received citations for deer driving report that they intend to fight the charges. One major York County landowner who has left hundreds of acres of hunting land open to the public was allegedly told by a Game Warden to post his land to avoid future incidents. If this was true, perhaps the Maine Warden Service should re-evaluate the methods employed by officers when greeting the public. If any of the citations were issued without sufficient evidence to prosecute to conclusion, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the deer driving law.
Responsible hunters, resident or otherwise appreciate the hard work and dedication offered by the Maine Warden Service. There are enough groups and individuals that seek to tear down our hook and bullet sports without hunters criticizing the Warden Service. However, officers should stick to the rule of law and presentation of evidence when prosecuting violators. If a current law is not adequately spelled out to aid the officers in their duties, perhaps it’s time to take another look. Above all, any and all officers that act in an overly officious manner without cause should be reprimanded or dismissed. They shouldn’t have to be told they can improve hunter relations with a smile and pleasant greeting than with a clenched jaw and stern mannerism.
Stu Bristol is a freelance outdoor writer, regular Sporting Journal columnist, a Master Maine Guide, former Vermont Game Warden and has published several books and several thousand newspaper and magazine articles over the span of four decades.
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