Last August, Judge Robert L. Smith of Ripley County, Missouri, declared some state regulations regarding deer hunting to be unconstitutional. Those regulations prohibited hunting deer with the aid of dogs and from vehicles. On July 15, 2011, in Turner and Jones v. Missouri Dept of Conservation, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Southern District reversed Judge Smith’s rulings, holding that Neil Turner and Bobby “Shannon” Jones lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of these regulations, which are enforced by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Turner was among those identified in a federal investigation of a group in Southeast Missouri who in 2008 apparently traveled in ATVs and used dogs to drive deer to hunters in tree stands within the Mark Twain National Forest. The dogs were equipped with radio transmitters. Jones was never charged, but was questioned by a Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) investigator.
Turner and Jones persuaded Judge Smith that the regulations prohibiting hunting deer with “a motor-driven conveyance” or with dogs were unconstitutionally vague, so vague that they couldn’t tell what was prohibited. In addition, they claimed that the regulations were defective because they were too broad. The vagueness and overbreadth deprived Turner and Jones (and MDC) of notice of what was legal, depriving Turner and Jones of the due process protection afforded by the federal and state constitutions.
In a footnote, the court of appeals indicated that Judge Smith was striking a blow for hunting rights, rather than following the law, quoting his judgment before trashing it:
Upon consideration of all evidence and arguments of the parties, the trial court recognizes that hunting is an important right. In our area, hunting is not only for recreation, but it is a part of our way of life and any infringement of this right must be constitutional.
Turner and Jones had a couple of points. The language of the regulations in questions seems to encompass use of vehicles that is not intended to be prohibited (such as traveling to a hunting area) and only uses the plural term “dogs” not the singular form “dog.” At trial, the attorneys for Turner and Jones asked hypothetical questions of MDC agents about interpretation of the regulations and obtained inconsistent answers. The attorneys argued that not even MDC knew the meaning of its regulations.
But the Court of Appeals had no need to slice-and-dice the hunters’ legal arguments. The appellate court ruled that neither Turner nor Jones had the proper standing to bring the constitutional questions to court in the first place, because the vagueness in the regulations didn’t pertain to the acts that Turner was charged with, and Jones wasn’t charged with anything. Courts do not have jurisdiction to consider hypothetical questions, so the trial court erred by ruling on the petition of Turner and Jones. In other words, Turner made no claim that the federal prosecution of him would end if the regulations were declared void. Turner’s group had more than one dog, so he couldn’t argue that the regulation was vague about whether use of one dog was prohibited. Jones was not prosecuted and had nothing at stake.
The idea that the regulations were overbroad received even less respect from the Court of Appeals. MDC successfully argued that the concept of a regulation being overly broad only applies in the context of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. To be constitutional, a regulation that restricts speech or the freedom of people to associate with whomever they wish must be narrowly focused on achieving a legitimate legislative purpose.
Deer-hunting regulations were formulated when deer were much more scarce than now, though seasons and limits have been loosened up considerably. Hunting deer with dogs was considered sporting in the 19th Century and earlier, but ATVs and radio telemetry weren’t a part of the tradition.