Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Firearm forfeiture is taken out of new bill

Harrisburg – A legislative effort to restore the Pennsylvania
Game Commission’s authority to take away the firearms of even those
most egregious wildlife violators has failed.

Under pressure from some gun owners and sportsmen, the House
Game and Fisheries committee is expected to remove language dealing
with confiscation and forfeiture from House Bill 2205, which is
aimed at overhauling penalties for poachers. The committee also
tweaked the measure to go easier on first-time violators and get
tougher on repeat offenders.

The bill could be voted on this fall, but, given the upcoming
general election, is expected to be reintroduced and acted on next
year. It would require both House and Senate approval.

Amending forfeiture out of the bill increases its chance of
passage, said committee chair Rep. Ed Staback, D-Lackawanna. “The
(forfeiture) portion of the bill became extremely controversial.
Rather than see the entire bill destroyed as a result, we decided
to remove all the (forfeiture) language, and deal with it in
another bill down the road. For now, we want to focus on
poaching.”

Kim Stolfer, of the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League and
Firearms Owners Against Crime, had lobbied the committee against
forfeiture, out of concern it would give the Game Commission too
much power over individuals’ personal property rights. “Let’s
ratchet up the penalties and show we’re serious about poaching,”
said Stolfer, of McDonald. “But leave asset forfeiture out of the
Game Code.”

The committee’s Minority chair, Rep. Sam Rohrer, R-Berks, said
the bill’s forfeiture language – modeled after drug forfeiture laws
– was so vague it threatened “far too much of a real or potential
infringement on citizens’ rights.”

In light of what he called a “demonstrated government
aggressiveness” in recent years to compromise constitutional
rights, “any legislation having to do with taking property away
from individuals had better be very carefully crafted and
considered.”

The Game Commission said it is interested only in firearms,
jacklights and other property, such as ATVs, directly connected to
serious violations, and offered to explicitly delete PennDOT-titled
vehicles and real estate from the bill. But that failed to assure
forfeiture critics.

“It would be like putting old tires on a brand new pick-up,”
said Stolfer. The committee decided to delete forfeiture altogether
and will be given an amended HB 2205 this fall.

The Game Commission had long-standing forfeiture authority until
1990, when, in Commonwealth vs. Reeves, Commonwealth Court ruled
the Game Code didn’t provide for due process in keeping a
violator’s vehicle.

The case involved an SUV that the defendant Gary Reeves used to
transport poachers. Although he pleaded guilty, Reeves convinced
the court the commission acted without statutory power in keeping
his vehicle.

The ruling set precedent, stripping the commission of its
forfeiture authority for everything except wildlife and wildlife
parts, or obvious contraband, such as marijuana. Legal firearms,
knives, spotlights, and other items – even when used unlawfully –
can be seized only for evidence but must be returned to the owner
once a case is adjudicated.

Even with statutory authority, the commission would have to
convince the court to order forfeiture, as a matter of
constitutionally guaranteed due process. “Without statutory
authority, we can’t even ask,” said Game Commission assistant
counsel Jason Raup. “And we haven’t asked since Reeves.”

Raup said he can recall just two occasions when a judge or
district attorney ordered hunting weapons forfeited anyway. “There
were other criminal activities beside wildlife poaching involved
and the guys did something so bad, the DA or the judge found some
other statutory vehicle with which to do it.”

But those cases dramatize the impact forfeiture can have, said
commission law enforcement chief Rich Palmer. “One guy was almost
in tears trying to buy his two guns back from us. He had multiple
offenses, a 60-year license revocation, and thousands of dollars in
fines, but nothing got his attention like the forfeiture of his
guns. His family was offering to pay us far more than they were
worth.” The commission does not sell guns back to former
owners.

Pennsylvania is regarded as soft on poaching, compared with
other states, although HB 2055 would increase serious offenses to
the level of felony and provide for harsher fines and jail time,
which is not now allowed under the Game Code. (Separate legislation
was introduced this year to enroll Pennsylvania in the Interstate
Wildlife Violator Compact, which bans violators in one state from
hunting in all member states. Pennsylvania is one of just a few
states that hasn’t yet joined.)

Raup said forfeiture would have put more teeth in the
anti-poaching package, which is targeted mostly at serial
offenders. “Besides jail time and higher fines, they’d know they’d
likely lose their weapon,” he said. “We prosecuted one guy on three
different occasions, and although he was found guilty, we had to
give him back his crossbow.”

Palmer said wildlife officers in other states tell him
forfeiture is effective. “License revocation and permanent
forfeiture of firearms – especially in states in the compact – are
the two big deterrents,” he said. “Firearms are the number one
thing. People have a strong emotional attachment to their
guns.”

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department attorney Boyd Kennedy backs
that up. “We were pretty much where you are until the 1990s,” he
said. “Fines weren’t making the serious offenses go away, so we
raised the stakes.”

The state Legislature increased penalties for poaching, and
broadened the wildlife department’s forfeiture authority, he said.
“Forfeiture is aimed at certain crimes, like hunting without
landowner consent, or with spotlights, or hunting from a car on the
road, and it has worked. We’ve seen a decline in those
offenses.”

Col. Peter Flores, director of law enforcement for Texas Parks
and Wildlife, agrees forfeiture hits poachers where it hurts. “We
took away a prized Browning rifle that had belonged to a violator’s
granddaddy for hunting without landowner consent,” he said. “The
guy was 27 (years old) but when he got out of jail, he was more
afraid of facing his daddy over the loss of a family heirloom.”

But Rohrer said what other states do has little bearing here,
and the issues at stake affect more than gun owners. “Every person
who values a constitutional right – to travel, to speak their mind,
to do anything – had better be on heightened alert, because the
evidence is clear that there is increasingly a disregard for those
rights,” he said.

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