COLUMBIA — Hunters by the hundreds have been flouting trespassing laws in South Carolina, showing current penalties may be too weak.
‘‘We continue to receive more and more complaints,” said Mike Sabaka, a captain with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources law enforcement. “And we continue to spend more of our resources addressing (it).”
Trespass-to-hunt violations have become one of the agency’s more serious crimes, he said.
“You’re talking about individuals on other people’s land, on land they don’t have rights to be on, that they’re taking game off of,” said Sabaka, during a House subcommittee meeting Feb. 18.
His agency prosecuted 300 to 400 trespass-to-hunt cases last year. Remedies, however, are winning mixed support from lawmakers.
Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, took issue with a bill, H. 4345, which would raise the penalty from 10 points to 18 points, and suspend a violator’s hunting privileges for one year.
“It’s pretty much a death sentence to someone who’s caught trespassing,” said the lawmaker.
Sabaka and Alvin Taylor, the director of the DNR, said the intention is to send a clear message to trespassers.
“It’s not the fine amount that concerns them,” said Sabaka. “The first question they want to know is ‘How many points does this carry?’ The point system has an effect on individuals.”
But Hixon also argued that the definition of the violation could confuse lawmakers and ultimately the public. The pending proposal, however, does not change the definition of the crime or the way suspects are apprehended.
“I’m a dog person,” said Hixon. “If he gets on somebody else’s land, I am going to get him some kind of way. Y’all might charge me with trespassing, but I’m going to go get my dog.”
Amid confusion about what would constitute trespass-to-hunt violations, a House panel tabled the bill targeting point penalties.
Still, Taylor emphasized the agency has no problems handling those cases under the current definition of the law. “The way we enforce it doesn’t change,” said Taylor.
But House lawmakers were not convinced.
Taylor’s agency had more success in the S.C. Senate.
On Feb. 19, a Senate panel approved S. 986, which would raise trespass-to-hunt fines from $500 to $1,000, with a maximum set at $2,500.
“You may get caught one out of 25 or 30 times,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, who introduced the proposal.
He said current law offers little reason to comply.
“It ends up making economic sense to just not join a hunting club or not buy a piece of property., just go poach and pay your $200 fine or less. And you won’t get caught again for another 10 years.”