March 23 03:35 AM
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Presumption of guilt

Our system of justice in the United States, including Michigan, is supposed to be based on the premise that anyone is innocent of an alleged crime until proven guilty. Unfortunately, in the real world, that is not how the system actually works, at least when it comes to hunting and fishing violations. In a growing number of cases involving conservation officers, they presume a hunter or angler is guilty of an offense, issue a ticket based on that presumption, and then it is up to the individual who has been ticketed to prove their innocence.

In most cases, it is far more expensive and time consuming to prove innocence than to pay a fine. Consequently, most people decide to pay the fine and go on with their lives because that's the path of least resistance. This reinforces the tendency of officers to issue tickets based on presumption of guilt.

The end result is you can be following the letter of the law and still end up being ticketed. You don't think that's possible? Consider the following example that I have firsthand knowledge of.

Mike Belanger from Gwinn has a camp in Iron County. The camp is actually his second home. Many weeks, he spends as much time at the dwelling in Iron County as the one in Gwinn. During the fall, Belanger often spends more time at his "camp" than his home.

As a deer hunter, Mike likes to see deer, so he started recreationally feeding whitetails at his Iron County residence. Bears like to eat many of the same foods that deer do. Since there are many bears in the area, it wasn't long before a number of bruins became regular visitors.

Since Mike didn't know much about bears, he started asking questions about behaviors he was seeing and vocalizations he was hearing. He talked to DNR employees and he also called me. Based on the books and magazine articles I've written about bears and bear hunting, Mike figured I know a thing or two about the animals. Belanger became so fascinated with bears, he switched from recreationally feeding deer to recreationally feeding bear.

Although the DNR deer and elk feeding and baiting rules don't specifically mention bears, it is clear that those regulations also apply to feeding bears in the Upper Peninsula where baiting and feeding remain legal. Anyone in the UP who is feeding deer corn or apples is potentially feeding bears at the same time. In fact, the same thing is true for the thousands of people who feed birds, as many of them discover each year. Bears also like bird food.

Mike started photographing bears with both still and video cameras as part of his recreational viewing. And he shared those photos with many people, including DNR employees, making no secret of the fact he was recreationally feeding the animals. I started answering Belanger's questions about bears in 2008 and the conversations continued into 2009.

Although Mike told me he was not a bear hunter and had no interest in hunting bears, I was surprised when he said that he had applied for a bear license in 2009 and was successful in the drawing. I assumed he had changed his mind about hunting the animals. With that in mind, I explained to him over the telephone that he would not be able to hunt bears at his camp where he had been recreationally feeding them because it is illegal to bait (place food) for bears for hunting purposes until August 10.

During our frequent conversations, Mike invited me to photograph bears at his camp. I took him up on his invitations on July 25, 2009. During the course of our visit, I repeated what I had told him previously about not being able to hunt bear from his camp. He said he understood that and explained that he had no intention of hunting bears at that location.

While I was visiting with Belanger, two conservation officers arrived to investigate a report they had received of him baiting bears before the legal starting date of August 10. One was Jason Wickland from Iron River. The other was Sergeant Marc Pomroy.

The officers were certainly doing their jobs by being there to "investigate" the report they received. Unfortunately, they weren't there to investigate. They arrived with the intent of issuing a ticket and that's what they did, totally ignoring what they were told as well as the law allowing recreational feeding in the UP.

Mike clearly told the officers he was not baiting, but feeding bears for recreational viewing. I also heard Belanger tell the officers that although he had been successful in the bear license drawing, he had no intention of buying a bear tag nor bear hunting anywhere, much less at his camp. My input about the situation also fell on deaf ears.

After the officers left, I had a clearer understanding of why Mike applied for a bear license. It wasn't so he could hunt bear. His intent was to prevent someone else from getting a bear license. But even if Belanger had a bear license, it should not have had a bearing on whether or not he got a ticket.

The recreational feeding law does not say licensed hunters can not feed deer or bear. In fact, many people who recreationally feed deer are licensed deer hunters that hunt some distance away from where they recreationally feed whitetails. The same is true for bear hunters.

The incident report that officer Wickland wrote for the Iron County Prosecutor's office to accompany the ticket is a piece of fiction designed to justify issuance of the citation. At the same time, what Wickland wrote ignores the fact that a law exists that allows recreational feeding of wildlife. He uses the words bait and feed interchangeably in the report as though they are the same.

Since Mike wants to continue recreationally feeding bears at his Iron County residence, he pled not guilty to the charge. I sent the prosecutor's office a letter on Mike's behalf along with a copy of the baiting and feeding regulations, hoping the charges would be dismissed. No such luck!

I also attended a preliminary hearing with Belanger in front of Judge C. Joseph Schwedler, hoping the judge would listen to reason. The judge recommended against Mike saying anything and refused to let me speak on his behalf. Belanger was forced to hire an attorney; Dennis Tousignant from Iron River, who appears to be making progress on the case.

It is situations like this one that give the DNR a black eye. It amounts to nothing more than harassment of law abiding citizens and abuse of power. The real crime is that while some officers are wasting time on cases like this one, some violators are breaking the law and getting away with it.

A friend of mine found a number of illegal bear baits in a different county more than a month before baiting was supposed to begin this year. He called one or two conservation officers to report them in the hopes those responsible would be ticketed. An officer attempted to return his call once, but failed to make contact with my friend. When that attempt failed, there was no follow-up.

How can there be justice when those that are guilty are not charged and those that are innocent are ticketed because the presumption of guilt runs rampant?

Richard P. Smith
November 03, 2009

SW Mainstreet Sharon
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