Issue: Do Feds have jurisdiction where state charges were already dropped?
By Roger McCredie-Federal judge Martin Reidinger has asked opposing sides to submit briefs debating whether his court has the jurisdiction to hear two “Operation Something Bruin” cases in which state charges against the defendants have already been dropped.
Haywood County atty. Russell McLean made the jurisdictional challenge on behalf of two clients, David Frank Crisp and Jerry (Jinx) Park, both of whom were arrested in February of 2013 as part of an anti-bear poaching operation known as “Operation Something Bruin.”
Both men were originally arrested on an array of poaching and illegal hunting state charges, but all state charges against them were subsequently dropped (see below). At that point, the agencies that carried out “Operation Something Bruin” reintroduced the charges in federal court. The question before Reidinger’s court now is whether the charges should be heard at all, considering that the state charges were dropped due to lack of evidence and improper law enforcement procedures.
The sting operation was carried out across southwestern North Carolina and northern Georgia by undercover agents from the National Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and North Carolina and Georgia wildlife agencies. Throughout the fall and winter of 2012, officials said, agents “imbedded” themselves within bear-hunting circles in order to gain the trust and confidence of suspected poachers – hunters who kill bears, often on government-owned land, in order to harvest certain organs for sale on the black market. Agents said they accompanied poachers on hunting trips so that they could witness illegal activities and later offer first-hand testimony of it.
The agents sprung their trap in late January, 2013, making a total of 81 arrests for poaching, conspiring to sell bear parts and related trespassing, baiting and illegal equipment charges. Media and lawmakers praised the sting, which had taken three years to organize, plan and execute. In October, 2013, as cases against the defendants went forward, NPS Sgt. Chad Arnold, who was credited with organizing the operation, was named “officer of the year.” And after the awards had been handed out and the congratulations exchanged, Operation Something Bruin gradually faded from the front pages and the six o’clock news – though its elaborate website, operationsomethingbruin.org, which told the story of the sting operation in detail, remained on the Internet as a salute to interagency teamwork and as a warning: don’t even think about getting involved in this; you can run but you can’t hide.
However, as the year went by and the cases went forward, both the evidence submitted and the testimony of defendants and officers alike began to cast a different light on Operation Something Bruin. Finally, this past February, numerous people whose lives had been affected by Operation Something Bruin told their stories at a town hall meeting in Bryson City. And as their stories unfolded, OSB’s pedestal began to crumble.
What emerged instead were stories of armed and armored tactical teams storming into houses, of frightened children hiding under beds, of watching helplessly as their homes were ransacked and of the warrantless seizure of personal property, family heirlooms and even boats and construction equipment that, they said, could not possibly have had any bearing on such an investigation.
Hunters arrested or approached during the sting recalled being pestered by undercover agents to be taken on bear hunts out of season, agents planting evidence, and “imbedded” agents actually killing six of the 10 bears taken during the operation, as well as several deer – also out of season and/or under circumstances that would be illegal for “civilians.”
Perhaps the most bizarre account was that of a little girl who recounted that armed agents had raided her house, having received “a tip” that the family was harboring and feeding a baby bear. It emerged that the child, who according to her father has “a vivid imagination,” had been telling teachers and classmates that she had a bear at home with whom she had tea parties. One teacher, observers said, had a family member who was a game warden, though it’s unclear whether there was any connection between that fact and the eventual raid on the little girl’s home.
The bear in question, of course, was a teddy bear. On seeing this, according to the father, the officers conducting the raid “kind of laughed,” but searched the house anyway.
All of these incidents, it was revealed at the Feb. 18 meeting, had come out as actual court testimony over the preceding months as, case by case, OSB’s entire prosecution framework began to go south.
In June of 2013, ten defendants pleaded guilty to a variety of misdemeanor charges ranging from outdated permits to driving on government land. Major charges against them were dropped. Poaching-related state charges were also dropped against most other defendants. That was when OSB officials resorted to resurrecting the charges at the federal level.
None of those later developments, it turned out, had received any acknowledgement from state or federal government sources, or any play in the media that had heaped praise on the OSB task force. Following the Bryson City meeting, public information officer Geoff Cantrell of the state Wildlife Resource Commission’s law enforcement division declined comment saying that not all cases have yet been settled. “We are aware of the criticism,” he said, “but until those arrested are given a verdict in a court of law we will not debate Operation Something Bruin in the court of public opinion.”
Three political figures, State Sen. Jim Davis, Rep. Joe Sam Queen and Principal Cherokee Chief Michele Hicks – attended the meeting, sitting at a table together like a review panel hearing testimony. All agreed that the matter deserved looking into. But following the meeting, Davis, responding to an e-mail from the Tribune, said, “It is not appropriate for me to investigate … I have neither the authority nor the expertise … It is appropriate for the agencies to evaluate their tactics… I attended the so called public hearing to listen to the concerns of the people involved.” Queen never replied. Likewise, an e-mail from the Tribune to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, inquiring whether the governor might consider rescinding the award he presented to Arnold, went unanswered.
McLean has called the OSB officers’ tactics “egregious” and “an appalling abuse of power.” He said his purpose in challenging the federal court is to determine “whether it’s even proper for the [federal] government to prosecute these cases. It’s a question of who is even properly a party,” he said. “Once we deal with that, it will be our turn.”
No time frame has been set for McLean and his opposite number, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards, to present their briefs.