If you’re a hunter and a game agent cites you for, say, having a loaded rifle in your truck, odds are good you’ll never have to pay a fine or face a judge.
The numbers are in your favor because the vast majority of the state’s fish and wildlife violation cases end up dismissed.
Not too long ago, a Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife officer could have written you a $271 citation and you would have done what about two-thirds of defendants in wildlife criminal cases used to do: simply mailed in the check to avoid dealing with court appearances and lawyers.
That method was known as a form of bail forfeiture.
But in July 2012, the Washington Supreme Court amended the rules that courts follow regarding bail forfeitures, removing it as an option in some criminal cases. The change, intended to guarantee due process, means that misdemeanor cases that typically had been resolved by simply paying a fine rather than going to court are forwarded to county prosecutors, forcing them to decide whether to prosecute.
In turn, that meant a vastly increased caseload for prosecutors at the District Court level, where most fish and wildlife violations are adjudicated.
And in Yakima County, the prosecutor’s office was already straining under heavy caseloads.
“It has become a triage,” said Ken Ramm, chief criminal deputy prosecuting attorney for Yakima County. “We have limited resources.“We have to prioritize everything.”
A review of data from the state Administrative Office of the Courts in the past 31⁄2 years indicates most wildlife cases are fairly low priority.
Since the rule went into effect, 194 out of 302 wildlife-related criminal misdemeanor cases — about two out of three — have been dropped in Yakima County. The other 105 involved stipulated deferral agreements under which defendants agree to adhere to specific conditions — such as not getting in any more trouble for a year — in return for a lowered fine or having the case dropped.
“It’s a concern for us,” said Fish and Wildlife enforcement Capt. Rich Mann, choosing his words carefully because, he said, “you don’t want to make the prosecutors mad so they just throw all your stuff in the trash.“But from a law enforcement standpoint, I’d like for people to understand that if you break the rules, there’s a penalty that you’re going to have to pay — or, at least, that more often than not, there’s some repercussions when you break the law.”
Yakima County isn’t the only court system where wildlife-related violations often go unpunished.
“Nobody prosecutes fish and wildlife offenses,” said Everett attorney Aaron Shields, “unless they’re repeat offenders or the case is of such significance that you can’t ignore it.”
“It’s statewide,” said Mike Krenz, who recently retired from the Fish and Wildlife after 34 years in enforcement, almost all of it in the greater Seattle area. “King County is absolutely the worst in the state.”
Krenz recalled the case of a hunter facing “something like a dozen” charges in King County related to illegally obtaining in-state resident fishing licenses in several states.
“These weren’t little things, either — they were gross misdemeanor charges,” Krenz said. “Nine years (after accruing the evidence for the charges), I got a decline-to-prosecute letter from King County.
“That’s what Yakima is facing now (that) all control is taken away from the officer and (prosecutors) make deals. Even if they decide to charge, the prosecutor is making deals with the (defendant) without ever talking to the officer.” Krenz said.
Like many attorneys, Seattle attorney Edmund Allen had urged the Supreme Court to not to do away with the bail-forfeiture option. Prosecutors, Allen wrote during the public comment period on the rule change proposal, “will find their hands tied and will ultimately come to regret this action.”