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Tulsa World

Cockfighting: Round two

A breeder cock is photographed on a farm near Pawnee. Fifty-six percent of Oklahoma voters approved the cockfighting ban on Nov. 5, making Oklahoma the 48th state to outlaw the bloodsport.
DAVID CRENSHAW / Tulsa World file

Let's get this fight over with

It's not surprising cockfighters aren't giving up their fight, given the zeal with which they fought the petition to ban their pastime.

But they're not the only ones who feel passionate about the issue, and the other side has lots of legal history working for it.

Fifty-six percent of Oklahoma voters approved the cockfighting ban on Nov. 5, making Oklahoma the 48th state to outlaw the bloodsport. Since then the gamefowl industry has obtained injunctions in more than a dozen counties, hoping to eventually overturn the new statute that includes penalties of up to $25,000 and 10 years in prison.

Among other claims, cockfighters argue that the new statute is vague and deprives them of property without compensation. They quarrel with the penalties and the element of intent and argue that the new law will waste precious criminal justice resources.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson, whose office will fight the cockfighters, has answers to all of the above.

"This is one of those things that comes to the AG's office occasionally in which I've got friends on both sides," he said. "But our job is to uphold the statute if it's defensible and I believe it is."

While cockfighters believe numerous district court rulings will help their cause, Edmondson believes the growing number of lawsuits actually will encourage the Oklahoma Supreme Court to get involved quickly. Numerous court cases will "make it clear" to the high court it will have to act sooner or later.

Among reasons Edmondson says the new statute is constitutional is its similarity to the state's 20-year-old dogfighting ban.

Determining intent is not a big problem; it's an issue prosecutors face regularly. "If the prosecutor doesn't believe he can make the case he probably won't file it," Edmondson said. "In the hypothetical sense, all kinds of things could be indicative of a fight, not the least of which would be two roosters in a ring fighting."

Cockfighters claim the new law will fill up the jails, but Edmondson, like most other rational Oklahomans, says that's not likely. Law officers probably won't make cockfighting a high priority for several reasons, lack of resources among them. Sheriffs freely admit they don't have the manpower to go looking for cockfights.

But Edmondson believes law officers will act if they get complaints or come across a cockfight. "You could say the same thing about the domestic cultivation of marijuana. Most sheriffs don't have the manpower to patrol open fields and river banks, but if they're there for another reason and come across it they will respond," he said.

Edmondson pointed out that state statute requires law officers to respond if gambling is brought to their attention, or face possible removal from office.

Judges probably aren't going to be sending cockfighters to prison by the busload, either. Many felonies carrying stiff penalties are rarely levied, usually because of plea bargaining. "Second-offense DUI carries up to five years in the pen. I've never heard of a case where a person convicted of second-offense DUI went to jail for a day," Edmondson observed.

Though it's unlikely the harshest penalties will be invoked, Edmondson believes voters still wanted a strong statute. They wanted to send the message that they find the offense serious and discourage participation in it. "Sociologically, the whole idea behind punishment is to deter the activity," he said.

Edmondson dismisses outright the claim about compensation. "Nowhere in the statutes has there ever been a compensation when society through the democratic process collectively declared an activity or a substance to be illegal," Edmondson said.

"Keep in mind this petition was filed in December of 1999," he added, "so the industry has had three years to anticipate this possibility, and every poll taken in that time has indicated it would pass. So it's a little disingenous now to act surprised."

Surely the most audacious claim of the cockfighters is that now they have to kill their birds -- which would have been their fate anyway -- because of the new law. Again, Edmondson has an answer: There still are legal ways to own and transfer the birds -- as long as it's for purposes other than fighting.

Of course it won't be Edmondson but the state's high court justices who will decide this issue. Edmondson is "confident" the statute is constitutional but no one can predict what a court will do.

It helps that Oklahoma isn't the first state to ban cockfighting. In fact we're one of the last. Experiences of 47 other states with similar bans on the books back up arguments for the ban. That and the opinions of 56 percent of the state's voters.

We can only hope the lawyers and judges act quickly so this issue can be laid to rest sooner rather than later. That would be in everyone's best interests.