Friday, April 28, 2006

Judge in NJ Fines Activists Protesting the New Jersey Black Bear Hunt In December

They simply step over a partition and they’re arrested. It’s pretty clear the cops were just waiting for an excuse.


Bear-hunt protesters fined

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Herald Staff Writer

VERNON — A judge on Tuesday found a group of animal rights activists guilty of a minor legal infraction for stepping over a partition while protesting the New Jersey black bear hunt in December, rejecting arguments that the police who arrested them violated their right to free speech.

The six activists, all members of the West Milford-based Bear Education and Resource Group, were arrested Dec. 10, the final day of the six-day hunt, in which 298 bears were killed in New Jersey. They were charged with obstructing a government function after ignoring orders from State Park Police officers to remain inside fenced-in protest area at Wawayanda State Park.

The protesters were BEAR group Director Lynda Smith, 42; William Crain, 62, a Manhattan college professor; Eleanor Hoffman, 47; Catherine McCartney, 38; Kristen Sondej, 38; and David Stewart, 67. Smith lives in West Milford; the others are from Bergen County, Morris County and New York City.

The group went to trial on the obstruction charge in Vernon Municipal Court in February; Judge C. William Bowkley reserved his decision until after hearing closing arguments Tuesday.

Gina Calogero, a Bergen County lawyer representing all six defendants, argued that the protesters' act of civil disobedience amounted to constitutionally-protected speech. But Bowkley countered that — even if the free-speech argument "had merit" — "I just don't find (the defendants) have that type of merit in this context."

"The officers were charged with regulating conduct in the area," Bowkley said. "(These protesters) were interfering with the proper regulation of the site."

After finding the group guilty of the petty disorderly persons offense, he fined each of them $350, plus $150 in mandatory fees.

Calogero promised an appeal.

"We're going to take this as high as we have to," she said after the hearing.

The Dec. 10 incident took place near a check-in station for successful hunters at Wawayanda State Park, a spot that was the focal point for protesters as well as news media during both the 2003 and 2005 bear hunts. The State Park Police designated a spot in a far corner of the parking lot — well away from any hunters — for the protest, and marked off the area with orange plastic fencing.

The BEAR group has staged many public protests in the past, but never before had they been cordoned off as they were that day, Smith said Tuesday. Smith had obtained the protest permit earlier that week, but said she didn't realize the protesters would be fenced in until arriving that day.

"The police presence was absolute overkill," Smith said. "To be treated like we were any kind of threat to anybody was offensive to me."

State officials at the time said they wanted to avoid an ugly confrontation between protesters and hunters — as there had been on the last day of the 2003 hunt, when the two sides nearly came to blows before police separated them. Also, there had already been incidents in the woods during the 2005 hunt, including one on Dec. 7 in which four other activists were charged with hunter harassment by an undercover park police officer.

Crain was the first to be arrested Dec. 10, after he stepped around the fence and began walking toward the check-in station while wearing a "Mother Nature Is Crying" sign. After seeing him arrested, the other five stepped around the fence and sat down immediately in front of it. Park police repeatedly urged them to go back, but they refused.

"There's no question that what they did was an act of speech," Calogero said during her final argument. She also argued that the protest permit was "unconstitutionally vague" and that the enforcement of it was arbitrary.

Municipal Prosecutor Robert Correale said the group's complaints about the permit should have been taken to state or federal court. The case, he said, was not about free speech but about the defendants disobeying police officers.

Correale argued for the maximum fine — $1,000 — in order to make an example of the group, but the judge demurred, saying, "I don't think these are bad people."

Attempts by the activists to voice their ideals during the proceeding largely fell on deaf ears.

Before being sentenced, Crain, a psychology professor at the City University of New York, read a written statement to the judge. In it, he said his actions were "peaceful attempts to call attention to a moral principle" and spoke of "the need to respect the worth and dignity of all living beings."

"Feel the same way about deer?" the judge broke in.

"Yes," Crain replied instantly.

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