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April 9, 2014

Some outdoor recreational laws being eliminated in Indiana

Law eases dozens of penalties, removes some crimes

INDIANAPOLIS — Patrons of the B-52 Pik-Up convenience store and tackle shop near the popular state-owned Brookville Lake may welcome news that tough penalties for violating some outdoor recreation rules are going away.  

Some crimes — such as sounding a boat horn when there’s no emergency or exceeding the fish catch limit — are coming off the books or being reduced from misdemeanors to infractions this summer.

“They do gripe a lot about some of those laws,” said Tiffany Marshall, a B-52 store cashier. “They say things I can't repeat.”

A law that takes effect July 1 may not stop the griping but it will significantly change the state's boating, hunting and fishing rules. It eases dozens of penalties, removes some crimes and gives judges, prosecutors and state conservation officers more discretion over enforcement.

More violators will be cited with an infraction and fine — like a speeding ticket — rather than face the threat of jail, a criminal record and the loss of hunting, fishing and boating privileges.

Poaching a deer will still be illegal, for example, but it will no longer be a crime for a boat owner to post his license number in the wrong place on the vessel — unless it’s done to deceive law enforcement.

More penalties will be discretionary. A first-time offense of poaching a deer now carries an automatic $500 fine. Under the new law, it will be up a judge to impose the fine.

The changes were part of a larger effort to rewrite Indiana’s criminal code to make punishments more fitting of their crimes. Supporters say the law still protects natural resources but without such a heavy hand.

“If the law said you could only catch and keep a fish that was 14 inches long, it was a crime if it was 14 and a half inches,” said Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, whose district includes Brookville Lake, which attracts about 1 million visitors a year. “We need to reserve our criminal penalties for real crimes.”

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, crafted the changes last summer as a member of the Legislature's Criminal Sentencing Policy Study Committee. It’s the same group that pushed the General Assembly to increase prison time for violent and sex offenders this year while lowering sentences for low-level drug and non-violent offenders.

Steele wanted to decriminalize even more offenses policed by the state's Department of Natural Resources than what ended up in the final bill.

He argued that prosecutors, busy with other crimes, were refusing to take cases from DNR officers or allowing offenders to plead to lesser offenses. His solution: Use more civil infractions that don't require a prosecutor to prove an offender's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, a first-term legislator who retired from the DNR as head of law enforcement in 2010, was wary at first. He saw strict enforcement of current laws as a deterrent - and a tool needed by the DNR's 150-member staff who police thousands of acres of state-owned parks and lakes.

“But, candidly, some of the laws did need to be changed,” Crider said. “So the challenge was to come up with a system that's fair. What we came up with isn't perfect yet, but it's workable.”

The Indiana Wildlife Federation wanted to see the bill stalled and sent to a summer study committee. It also cites concerns about diminishing the deterrent effect that Crider prizes.

“We're concerned about the unintended consequences of the law,” said Barbara Simpson, the federation's executive director.

Some DNR officers privately opposed the changes, as well. But DNR officials have publicly supported them, saying important penalties have been left intact and conservation officers have the discretion needed to enforce the rules with common sense.

Conservation officers previously had no discretion, noted DNR law enforcement spokesman Lt. Bill Brown in an email. While the impact of the changes is still unknown, he wrote, “it is anticipated that this bill will serve the citizens, the natural resources and the officer very well in the future.”

 

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