Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

1st poaching case goes before a jury

Uniontown, Pa. — In its nearly 120 years of existence, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has never seen one of its poaching cases go to a jury trial.

Until recently.

A Fayette County man accused of poaching a black bear last fall – and who had agreed in principle to a deal with authorities – instead backed out of that and sought a trial in Fayette County’s Court of Common Pleas before his peers.

His case was heard in early October.

That didn’t help him at all. Joseph Swaney, of Smithfield, was sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine, ordered to pay restitution costs of $1,500, lost his right to buy a hunting license for five years, and was given one year’s probation.

A public defender assigned him by the courts argued his case, but lost.

Swaney’s case began in September of 2012. On the seventh day of that month, he shot a bear. How big it was, no one knows for sure. By the time Wildlife Conservation Officer Brandon Bonin was tipped off about the case and investigated, most of the bear was gone. Swaney gave most of it to a neighbor.

Bonin did find a bear head and paws at Swaney’s home, though, and 91 pounds of bone and meat at the home of the neighbor, Justin McNamara, also of Smithfield.

“Based on what we did see I’d guess it was about 200- or 250-pound bear, but it’s hard to know really,” Bonin said.

Bonin said he filed charges against both men, then worked out deals with each.

Typically, that’s where things would have ended. In most cases like this, conservation officers handle the prosecution, making their case before a district justice who renders a judgment.

In this case, Swaney gave a statement saying that he shot the bear after it entered his garden. He also admitted giving the meat to McNamara, Bonin added.

Both men entered into plea deals. McNamara went through with his, and agreed to pay a $1,000 fine and lose his license privileges for three years.

For some reason, though, Swaney backed out of his. A trial resulted.

“It was definitely a first, for sure for us here in the region and I think for the whole state,” said Tom Fazi, information and education supervisor in the commission’s southwest region office in Bolivar.

Law enforcement officials, headed up by Rich Palmer, director of the law enforcement bureau in the commission’s Harrisburg office, investigated the issue and came to the same conclusion, that this was a first for all of Pennsylvania.

“We don’t know of any other cases like it,” said commission spokesman Travis Lau.

Swaney’s move to go to court did help him in one way. Officers had allegedly found a couple of marijuana plants growing at his home. Officers were going to overlook that as part of his deal.

When he backed out, they had hoped to reinstate those charges, but couldn’t because of a technicality, Bonin said.

Still, they won the case.

At trial, Swaney claimed that he’d shot the bear to defend the children of the neighborhood, Bonin said.

“I was surprised because he’d already admitted in his statement that he’d shot the bear because it was in his garden,” he said.

The jury didn’t buy it either. It came back with a guilty verdict in short order, and put Swaney in the record books, lighter in the wallet.

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