Man successfully argues the Fifth in deer killing case

In central Pennsylvania, a farmer apparently has won an expensive constitutional argument over his Fifth Amendment right to evasively answer a game warden’s questions about a recently deceased deer.

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Creative Commons: Garett Gabriel

The AP says that Jack Coble, 60, of Perry County, Pennsylvania, spent thousands of dollars to make a constitutional point about a $150 fine he received after he declined to give specific answers to a warden who was on Coble’s property.

The wire service obtained the summary transcript of the case, which posed an interesting legal argument about a little-known Pennsylvania statute. The law makes it illegal to refuse to provide answers to a game commission official asking questions under certain circumstances.

On the evening of Nov. 7, 2012, a game warden went to Coble’s farmhouse to investigate a tip about what is known locally as jack lighting, or using a spot light along with a gun to kill deer out of season.

The game warden believed that Coble was being evasive when he asked questions about the incident.  The AP says Coble and the warden then drove around Coble’s property and came across Coble’s daughter and another person in the possession of a dead deer. Coble asked the warden to leave the property. At some point after the incident, Coble acknowledged he was present when the deer was killed, said the AP.

Under an obscure Pennsylvania law, Coble was charged with a summary offense for not answering initial questions posed by the game warden, and then acknowledging his presence at the deer killing scene.

Constitution Daily found the actual statute online in the state’s Game and Wildlife code, under “Unlawful activities” related to the “Destruction for Agricultural Protection” of deer and other wildlife.

“It is unlawful for any person while acting under the provisions of this subchapter to … Refuse to answer, without evasion, upon request of any representative of the commission, any pertinent question pertaining to the killing or wounding of any game or wildlife killed or wounded, or the disposition of the entire carcass or any part thereof.”

Coble hired an attorney to fight the charge, believing he was not compelled to answer questions initially under his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fifth Amendment in the Miranda case, information willfully given to an investigator before someone is taken into custody—and read their Miranda rights—can be used in a court of law, which includes interviews where a person is free to leave the premises and conversations at the scene of an alleged crime.

But a suspect can refuse to answer questions at any time in the investigative process. The Supreme Court also held in June 2013 that such silence can be used as evidence in court in its Salinas v. Texas ruling.

Coble’s attorney, Donald Zagurskie, appealed the case on constitutional grounds.

“There’s no exception for the Game Commission under our Constitution to give them any greater police powers or less police powers than officer Joe Smith, walking the beat,” Zagurskie told the AP. “It’s so odd that that persists out there, and I think they believe that.”

Zagurskie’s argument was that the statute forced Coble to answer questions, or face punishment for an “unlawful” act.

The Perry County District Attorney then sided with Coble, and not the Game Commission, and the state attorney general and the Game Commission didn’t contest the appeal, which went in favor of Coble last week.

When asked why he fought the fine, Coble had a simple answer:  “ It’s an infringement on my constitutional right. I mean, a whole lot of my constitutional rights.”

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