Osage County judge made poachers pay
Retired Osage County Associate Circuit Court Judge Ralph Voss earned a reputation for being tough on Wildlife Code violators during his 23 years on the bench.
(Missouri Dept. of Conservation photo)
A recently retired judge reflects on wildlife law enforcement.
LINN, Mo. - Ralph Voss didn't set out to be a crusading judge. He says he strove to ensure that everyone got a fair shake in his courtroom. But when he presided over poaching cases, he saw them a little differently than many other judges, and the difference earned him a reputation as being tough on poachers.
Voss served as Osage County associate circuit judge from Jan. 1979 through Jan. 1, 2002. In those 23 years, his tough attitude toward hunting and fishing violations became well-known.
Sitting in his office at the Linn Unterrified Democrat newspaper during a recent interview, Voss said he guessed his reputation for being tough on wildlife code violators was deserved. Those who were caught shooting deer out of season or pulling big catfish from hollow logs in Osage County knew they probably would get the maximum fine, and Voss didn't hesitate to impose jail sentences on repeat offenders.
"My philosophy is that a penalty should be strong enough to reward the work that goes into making a case," said Voss. "Penalties also should be strong enough to discourage poachers."
He said that a conservation agent who finds an illegal trap might have to stake out that spot for several days to catch the person who set it. Furthermore, wildlife code violators know that their chances of getting caught are very small. "The penalty has to be pretty severe to make the agent's work worthwhile and to make the violator think twice before he breaks the law," said Voss.
He contrasts this with the relative ease of catching some other kinds of law breakers. "Driving faster than the speed limit is just as serious, maybe more so, because a speeder could kill someone" Voss said. "But a state trooper can set up on a stretch of highway and make dozens of cases in a day."
Voss said the fine for speeding could be $25 or $500 and people would still pay it so they can keep driving. "It's the points on their licenses that get their attention," he said. "They know that if they get too many speeding tickets, they will lose their driving privileges."
A soft-spoken man whose fashion preference runs to flannel shirts and faded jeans, Voss said he doesn't fault judges whose personal views of wildlife violations aren't as tough as his own.
"Every judge's attitude toward sentencing for a certain crime is influenced by his experience" he said. "My feelings about wildlife code violations probably have something to do with a memory of my dad. Forty-five or 50 years ago he and some of his friends caught a 22-pound catfish. They were still talking about that fish many years later, and that impressed me.
"I wondered, what if a kid had caught that fish with his grandpa? What kind of memories would that have been? How do you put a price on that? A guy with a trammel net or an electric generator can go out and catch 10 big fish in one night. That's depriving others of a whole lot of pleasure."
Just as drivers fear suspension of their driving privileges more than fines for speeding, Voss said the punishment that wildlife violators fear most is loss of hunting and fishing privileges. When prosecutors brought repeat offenders into Voss' court, they often asked him to suspend their hunting privileges, and he always complied.
"A lot of people who think nothing of violating the law really love to hunt and fish. Losing their ability to do those things for a year hurts them much more than a $500 fine.
Among the cases Voss took most seriously during his tenure on the bench was hunting from roads with spotlights. "It violates all the reasons you have game laws," said Voss. "It's unsporting, it takes game from law-abiding hunters and it's very dangerous to landowners and others who live there."
In 1995, the Missouri Conservation Commission responded to landowner and hunter requests and made it illegal to shine a light from a roadway. The new regulation exempted landowners so they could check on their livestock and property. However, the change still flew in the face a long-standing tradition of legal spotlighting in Osage County.
"Families would go out just to look at deer," said Voss. "You could stop 10 vehicles, and not one of them would have a gun."
Voss said Osage County Conservation Agent Mark Haviland handled the situation perfectly, giving lots of warnings and publicizing the new rule and the reasons behind it in his newspaper column and radio show. Haviland's patience paid off with a change in attitudes and citizens who understood and supported the new law because they understood why it was important.
Asked what he considers the biggest challenge to wildlife law enforcement, Voss said that poaching is a tradition in some families and even in some communities. Young hunters and anglers learn from their elders that it's okay to break the law. He said hunter education is a great opportunity to reach hunters in their formative years and instill better values, or at least make them aware that most people don't approve of wildlife code violations.
Voss said that he believes the vast majority of Missourians support wildlife laws. He said such support is critical to enforcing the laws.
"Way before I was a judge, I always had a lot of respect for the Conservation Department and its policies. By and large, I think they have earned that respect. Occasionally a guy who supports wildlife laws will exercise poor judgment - catch a few extra fish or start frogging season early because, (Voss laughed here) because they are afraid the poachers will beat them to it. That doesn't excuse breaking the law, but I really believe that if we could remove a small group of people who are habitual poachers you would have very few violations by others."
Voss said his tough-on-poachers approach was possible partly because of the two conservation agents with whom he was privileged to work. Gary Howard was Osage County's conservation agent from June of 1967 until 1995, when he turned the job over to Haviland.
"I don't know if you could ever begin to estimate the contribution Gary made to conservation during the 28 years he spent here," said Voss. "He is the kind of person who could stop somebody for a wildlife violation and write them a ticket and make them a friend."
Besides a natural, genuine friendliness, Howard had remarkable integrity, according to Voss. He wouldn't go to court unless he had a strong case, and he never overstated facts to gain a conviction. Over time, his reputation spread, and it made him even more effective.
"I shouldn't admit it, but sometimes I kind of felt sorry for people who had to face Gary in court. When he told a jury something, they just believed him - period."
Summing up Howard's career, Voss said, "He is kind of an Osage County legend. Mark (Haviland), is following in his foot steps, and that's quite a compliment. Gary left some pretty big boot prints."
Asked if he had any advice for conservation agents, Voss said the most valuable asset for any law enforcement officer is credibility. "If you write a ticket and you get to looking at it later and decide the case isn't as strong as you would like, either reduce the charge and plead it out or ask the prosecutor to dismiss it. If you go into court and have to overplay your evidence, that judge will never believe you again.
"If you have a reputation for honesty, people will respect you. It's a lot easier to take a ticket from someone you respect than from someone you know will cut corners."
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