As Washingtonians, we are fortunate to live in a state with numerous opportunities to enjoy pristine outdoor areas. Hunting is one of many outdoor activities individuals are passionate about. Whether it is to connect with nature, the thrill of the hunt or bonding with friends and family, walking through forests and open fields gives one a sense of freedom. Despite this air, the reality is that hunting is highly regulated and mistakes can result in serious criminal penalties.
The vast majority of hunters are upstanding citizens who fully intend to follow all rules and regulations. Unfortunately, honest mistakes do occur and we can only hope to arm ourselves with enough knowledge to cut down on the likelihood of one, and making sure the situation does not spiral out of control afterwards.
One, if not the most common, honest mistake a hunter may make is shooting the wrong animal. This often occurs in errantly shooting an animal that does not meet three-point minimums1 or misidentifying a subspecies of animal. This error arises more frequently in open-ground hunting areas common in eastern Washington due to hunters shooting at greater distances, as opposed to more densely wooded areas that require hunters to be closer to their prey.
Unfortunately, there may come a day when you initially think you made a perfect shot only to discover when walking closer that you were wrong. You realize you have just committed a crime where you could go to jail. What do you do?
"Do not panic" is the first step, says Washington State Fish & Wildlife Regional Captain Alan Myers. The knee-jerk reaction for many individuals is to flee the area immediately. However, as Capt. Myers explains, this act could dig you into an even deeper criminal hole.
If you leave the animal and simply flee the area, at a minimum you will face a criminal charge of waste in addition to the unlawful hunting charge. You have just doubled your potential charges. If you attempt to take the animal with you, you can face at least an unlawful transportation of wildlife charge in addition to the unlawful hunting charge. On top of everything, the vehicle and equipment used to transport the animal can be seized by Fish & Wildlife because they were used as part of a crime.
As counterintuitive as it may be, hunters must consider immediately turning themselves in as a potential option. According to Capt. Myers, "Honesty is everything." An individual who immediately contacts Fish & Wildlife directly or calls 911 to report the mistake, without altering or leaving the scene, will be looked upon most favorably. In such situations, it is up to the discretion of the officer whether to recommend filing criminal charges against the hunter.
"There are a lot of factors to take into consideration," explains Capt. Myers, such as the hunter's history and the objective facts supporting the hunter's reason for a mistaken kill. The officer must investigate the scene to see how the shot actually occurred to determine whether the mistake was reasonable and otherwise would have been legal (e.g., no trespassing; hunter had tag for the correct animal). If the kill is deemed a reasonable mistake and would have been legal had the correct animal been taken, and there are no other aggravating factors, such as a criminal history, an officer often will release the hunter with only a warning, a loss of tag and loss of the illegal animal.
And what should you do if you have no cell reception at the site? "Gut the animal to prevent wastage," says Capt. Myers, note the location of the site, leave the entire animal there and walk to where you can make the call.
It is important to remember that Fish & Wildlife officers are trained investigators. If they perceive any attempt by the hunter to hide or misdirect the truth, chances are the individual will be charged with the underlying unlawful hunting charge, all previous statements will be used against the person, and the individual could even face additional charges.
Moving the animal from the scene, even directly to the closest ranger station, will be thought of as "suspicious," according to Capt. Myers, and also a waste of time because the investigating officer will immediately want the hunter to take the officer right back to the scene. There is also the risk of the hunter being stopped by an officer on the way to the station. It is extremely unlikely an officer would believe the hunter's claim that he was just about to turn himself in.
So, what is the best thing you can do to avoid this situation? In addition to getting your eyes checked regularly, stay up to date with the most recently published hunter pamphlet and be sure of each shot you take. Once the shot has been taken, you will have to live with the decision and immediately start making some tough choices on how to extract yourself from a sticky criminal situation.
While we may hope turning oneself in is the best result for everyone, the unfortunate reality is it may not be. As a criminal defense attorney, I must also warn hunters that sometimes the truth will not set you free and will, instead, get you into even hotter water.
Everyone will have to weigh their risks when determining the lesser of several unpleasant options. At that point, most hunters will have wished they had taken an extra few seconds to double check their intended target. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Alexander Savojni is an attorney with Rhodes Legal Group, PLLC. He may be reached at 206-419-6483.
1 "A legal deer taken [in certain Game Management Units] must have at least 3 antler points on one side. A 3x3, 3x2, or 3x1 are legal in a 3 pt. min. unit. Antler points must be at least one inch long measured from the longest side, including eye guards." 2015 Washington State Big Game Hunting Pamphlet at 18.