Q: Time after time, I read about how a poacher’s sentence is a minimal fine and no jail time. Why don’t you fine these poachers an amount that makes them think twice about poaching again and put them in jail? Can the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) at least revoke their hunting and fishing licenses?
A: You are asking a very common question about a commonly misunderstood process. The easiest way to start is to say that wildlife officers have little to no say in the sentencing phase once a poacher is convicted. The federal justice system, and the state justice system in California, are designed that way.
A wildlife officer’s job is to investigate a crime and issue a citation, and then to make an arrest or submit the case to the county district attorney or U.S. attorney for potential prosecution. The state and federal justice systems are intentionally set up this way to maximize the chance of fair and impartial prosecution. Let’s use poaching crimes as an example. A wildlife officer will investigate and lay out the facts of a case in a report. In that report, the officer articulates the facts to meet the elements of one or more crimes. The officer can recommend that charges be filed. But the prosecuting attorney may elect not to pursue some or all of the recommended charges—even if the wildlife officer has identified every element of the crime(s). The prosecuting attorney may also pursue charges other than what the wildlife officer recommended.
In recent years, there has been a transition through the state initiative process and the Legislature to reduce penalties for many crimes in order to reduce California’s prison and jail populations. There is also a reduced motivation for courts to sentence convicted persons to jail or prison terms, especially for misdemeanor level criminal convictions, which include most poaching crimes.
You also asked about revoking hunting or fishing licenses for convicted poachers. There are a few ways to do this. California Fish and Game Code (FGC) section 12154 provides CDFW with authority to suspend or permanently revoke sport fishing or hunting privileges of poachers who are convicted of specified egregious violations, typically involving very large overlimits or the commercialization of sport caught animals. Courts may also suspend or revoke sport fishing and hunting licenses pursuant to FGC section 12158 for violating “any provision of (the Fish and Game) code or regulation made pursuant thereto relating to hunting or fishing for purposes other than profit.”
Finally, there are a few procedures which the California Fish and Game Commission may use to suspend or permanently revoke hunting and fishing privileges. California Code of Regulations, Title 14, section 745.5 allows the Commission to suspend or permanently revoke hunting or sport fishing privileges of convicted poachers. Usually, this process involves a hearing before a hearing officer. Several poachers have permanently lost their hunting or fishing privileges this way. In addition, FGC section 12155 requires the Commission to impose a three-year suspension of hunting privileges for poachers convicted of three violations related to the taking or possession of birds or mammals in a five-year period.
Q: I recently visited a California Highway Patrol (CHP) office and they said they don’t validate deer tags. An officer there said they have never validated tags. Can CDFW communicate better with all law enforcement agencies regarding validating deer tags?
A: Thank you for bringing the problem you experienced to our attention and congratulations on your successful deer hunt. And yes, peace officers, including CHP officers, are authorized to countersign deer tags.
We do our best to educate those who are authorized to countersign deer tags and we have found through experience that successful deer hunters frequently find authorized persons to countersign (validate) tags without the trouble you experienced. We’re sorry you had this experience, and we thank you for your persistence. Deer tags, and other fish and game species that have tagging and reporting requirements, are a vital part of wildlife management and wildlife law enforcement.
For CDFW’s deer biologists, countersigned deer tags and deer tag reporting are used to help assess overall deer herd health and help biologists prepare herd estimates and ultimately determine future deer tag allocations for the various deer hunting zones across the state.
CDFW’s wildlife officers use tags as an important component of deer poaching investigations, especially when directly confronted by a deer poaching suspect. Ethical deer hunters like yourself ask wildlife officers, “What can I do to help the effort against poachers?” The very first thing we ask of ethical hunters is to be patient with our tag reporting requirements. Countersigning deer tags is one of the best tools officers have in differentiating between legitimate hunters and poachers.
The regulation that describes who in California is authorized to countersign a deer tag is below. It may be helpful to print it out and carry it with you in your vehicle when you hunt to show an authorized countersigner.
Deer Tagging and Reporting Requirements (Excerpts from California Code of Regulations, Title 14, sections 708.5 and 708.6).
708.5(a): Upon the killing of any deer the tag holder shall immediately fill out all portions of the tag including the report card completely, legibly, and permanently, and cut out or punch out and completely remove notches or punch holes for the month and date of the kill. The deer license tag shall be attached to the antlers of an antlered deer or to the ear of any other deer and kept attached during the open season and for 15 days thereafter. Except as otherwise provided, possession of any untagged deer shall be a violation. (Refer to Fish and Game Code, Section 4336).
Section 708.6: Tag, Countersigning and Transporting Requirements. (a) Any person legally killing a deer in this state shall have the deer license tag countersigned by a person authorized by the commission as described in subsection (c) before transporting such deer, except for the purpose of taking the deer to the nearest person authorized to countersign the license tag, on the route being followed from the point where the deer was taken (refer to Fish and Game Code, Section 4341). (c) Any person legally killing an elk in this state shall have the elk license tag countersigned by a person authorized by the commission as described in subsection (c) before transporting such elk, except for the purpose of taking the elk to the nearest person authorized to countersign the license tag, on the route being followed from the point where the elk was taken.
708.6(c): The following persons are authorized to countersign deer and elk tags:
Fish and Game Commissioners
Employees of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, including Certified Hunter Education Instructors
Employees of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE)
Plant Quarantine Inspector, Supervisor I, and Supervisor II
Employees of the Bureau of Land Management
Employees of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service
All Uniformed Personnel of the National Park Service
Commanding Officers of any United States military installation or their designated personnel for deer or elk taken on their reservation.
Postmasters & Post Office Station or Branch Manager for deer or elk brought to their post office.
Firefighters employed on a full-time basis, only when the deer or elk carcass is brought to their fire station.
Judges or Justices of all state and United States courts.
Peace Officers (salaried & non-salaried)
Officers authorized to administer oaths
Owners, corporate officers, managers or operators of lockers or cold storage plants for deer or elk brought to their place of business.
No person may countersign his/her own deer tag or elk tag.
The formal authorization for a CHP Officer to countersign a deer tag is found above in California Code of Regulations (CCR) Title 14, Section 708.6 (c)(3)(D).
If you have a question you would like to see answered in the California Outdoors Q and A column, email it to CalOutdoors@wildlife.ca.gov.