Wildlife Violations may result in jail

ASHEVILLE – A federal magistrate says he's found evidence of judge shopping in a controversial bear poaching sting. U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell declined to hear a case set before him on Thursday, citing ethical and moral concerns. "I won't participate in this kind of activity," he said. The U.S. Attorney's Office agreed to dismiss two other cases before him after he raised concerns about prosecutors and defense attorneys making deals that would get defendants out of his courtroom for sentencing and before another judge. The case before Howell on Thursday was part of Operation Something Bruin, a joint federal-state poaching sting that has sparked outcry from the defendants who say they were unfairly targeted and punished. CITIZEN-TIMES Asheville judge rejects entrapment in bear poaching case Howell on Thursday started the hearing by asking defense attorney Brad Ferguson how he wanted to proceed on a new misdemeanor charge filed against his client, Robert Willie Bumgarner. He is charged with transporting a bear illegally in the Nantahala National Forest. Ferguson said he wanted to plead guilty before Howell but said sentencing would be before Judge Martin Reidinger at a later date as part of his deal with the government. The arrangement is not uncommon. Defendants in federal court are often asked at the end of a trial before a magistrate judge whether they would like to be sentenced before a district judge. But Howell raised concerns on Thursday. Howell then raised his concerns. "Gentlemen, I can tell you I have a problem," he said. "There is judge shopping that is going on in this case." Ferguson, under questioning from Howell, said he was following the plea agreement the government had offered on Nov. 14. The agreement is sealed. Howell, in court, indicated Ferguson and his client would be trading the dismissal of three petty offenses for a guilty plea in one misdemeanor. Howell noted that, by statute, Bumgarner could face more maximum time under the misdemeanor versus the petty offenses he was originally charged with. Each petty offense could mean a maximum of 6 months in prison. The misdemeanor could mean a max of one year. It is unclear whether Howell meant a concurrent sentence for the petty offenses. Judges have the authority to mandate sentences run at the same time or they can mandate they run back-to-back. He asked Ferguson why he would agree to such a deal. The attorney would only say he was following the agreement the government had offered. Howell then read in court an email that was about negotiations in a bear hunting case that does not appear to be related to Operation Something Bruin. In the message, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards, who is handing the Something Bruin cases, tells defense attorneys in January he understands their clients would prefer not to be sentenced before Howell in a petty offense wildlife violations cases. "I am happy to ask that the sentence not include incarceration, but several attorneys and I have seen, in similar cases, that such a request by the government doesn't seem to carry much weight, with some defendants who didn't even end up killing a bear or assisting in actual killing nonetheless getting active 30-day sentences," he said in the email that Howell read in court. Edwards suggested dismissing the petty offense charges, which were set for bench trials before Howell in Central Violations Bureau court, and refiling the charges as misdemeanors, which would get them before Reidinger. Edwards was not in court on Thursday. See Citizen Times for whole story: Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell alleged Judge Shopping

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