The Minnesota Supreme Court employed an extended grammar discussion Wednesday in ruling on when a person is hunting and requires a license.
The justices' decision ended a three-year fight in ruling against Roger B. Schmid, 82, of Avon, Minn., who had received a misdemeanor citation for hunting without a license.
Early on a Sunday in November 2011, a game warden found Schmid wearing blaze orange and sitting on his ATV in a camouflaged blind with a loaded 12-gauge, scoped shotgun at his side. He told the warden that he had shot a deer the night before. The officer saw no deer nearby, but did see a gut pile in the area.
The officer noted that Schmid's deer-hunting license lacked a bonus permit to shoot a second deer even though he appeared ready to hunt again, and told him he would cite him for hunting without a license. Schmid gave the officer several explanations of why he wasn't actually hunting for a second day. He said he was just part of a hunting team, out "nature watching" and coyote hunting.
After losing his temper with the officer, Schmid was issued a citation for hunting deer without a valid license under a state law that says a person may not "take" a deer without a license.
At Schmid's trial in Stearns County District Court, jurors were told that they needed to determine whether he was "taking" or just "pursuing" a deer as defined in another part of the state's game and fish laws. The jury convicted Schmid, and he lost his appeal at the state Court of Appeals.
The state Supreme Court justices' 18-page ruling laid out legal and grammatical reasons for affirming the lower courts' decisions.
"This decision is just common sense," said Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall. "It's a win for people who follow the rules."
During his trial, Schmid testified that he was waiting to transport a tagged carcass when the officer arrived — something the officer said in court that Schmid had not said in the field. Schmid said he was dressed in orange with his gun in a blind to stay warm and for safety reasons and argued that he hadn't violated state law because he hadn't actually "acquired possession" of a deer on the day the officer cited him.
In its review, the state high court looked at whether the law Schmid violated was ambiguous. It also discussed whether in the rules of grammar, "take" and "taking" share the same underlying definition when used in hunting descriptions. The justices even looked at whether different tenses of words in a statute can have different meanings.
The ruling, written by Justice David Lillehaug, drops words like "gerund," "syntactical" and "participle." Ultimately, he wrote, both the rules of grammar and long-standing state case law precedent make it only reasonable that the word "take" incorporates the definition of "taking" in game and fish laws. The Wisconsin Supreme Court also has made a similar ruling, Lillehaug noted.
Attorneys Daniel White, John Neal and Scott Flaherty handled Schmid's case before the Supreme Court. White asked whether the prosecution should have had to prove that Schmid intended to hunt deer rather than being afield doing something else, such as hunting coyote or simply being out for a walk.
"The uncertainty as to whether the State could properly charge someone without proving specific intent here made this case one of statewide importance," White said Wednesday. "We are glad that the Supreme Court resolved this uncertainty. We now know that if Minnesotans think that the State should need to prove an actual, specific intent for charges under Minnesota's fish and game laws, the law would need to be changed ... by Minnesota's legislators."
Ken Soring, the Department of Natural Resources' chief enforcement officer, called the high court's ruling reasonable, saying it upholds a commonly used law. The agency hasn't changed its enforcement of the law in question since Schmid lost his Court of Appeals challenge in 2013, Soring said. If the Supreme Court had reversed the lower courts' ruling, the DNR would have had to ask Legislature to change the language in the statute, he said.
"Aside from a bit of English and grammar lessons, the ruling just boils down to the best interest of citizens to have a common-sense application of law," Soring said.