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The Oklahoman

Ag Chief says cockfighting ban may be to broad
2002-11-14

State Agriculture Commissioner Dennis Howard said Wednesday he would consider entering the legal fray over Oklahoma's new anti-cockfighting law, although his agency doesn't regulate fighting fowl.

Gamecock breeders won a judge's order Nov. 7 to temporarily halt lawmen in three counties from enforcing State Question 687, two days after the statewide cockfighting ban was approved by voters.

The bird breeders are challenging the constitutionality of the law, and Howard indicated he might be open to joining the legal battle.

"I would consider that," Howard said. "I would have to talk to the legal staff to see what is legal. I do not anticipate being asked to do so and, at this time, no one has brought that up to me."

Asked Janet Halliburton, head of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting: "Is he an attorney? Would he be using state resources to do that?"

She said some claimed she used state resources in heading a drive to ban cockfighting in 1999 while she was with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. She resigned in February 2000.

"Cockfighting and the Agriculture Department have nothing to do with each other," Halliburton said.

The department's only involvement with game fowl would be in the event of a disease outbreak and checking health papers of imported and exported birds.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson said it is appropriate for Howard to look into the issue.

Howard said he, along with a lot of other people who have never been to a cockfight, are wondering whether the new statute is too broad, too liberal and in need of interpretation.

"In my personal opinion, to say you have to be rid of your chickens at 5 p.m. on Friday when the votes are certified, that's a taking of personal property," Howard said. "A lot of people are scared that some big, bad government guy ... like myself is going to come and get them."

If taxpayers had to pay for the game fowl, the tab could run from about $50 million to $250 million if they were paid for what cockfighters say their 500,000 birds are worth.

But the state is not legally responsible to compensate cockfighters for declaring their enterprise illegal, Edmondson said. Compensation would be a civil matter that would apply if, for example, highway construction crossed a chicken ranch, he said.

Cockfighters will seek compensation, said Larry Oliver, a Tulsa attorney representing game fowl enthusiasts.

"All of a sudden, their way of life, their culture has been uprooted," he said. "Where do they go?"

Cockfighters will be allowed to keep their birds, but they will not be allowed to fight them, according to the new law.

Edmondson said restrictions still exist even in McCurtain, Pushmataha and Choctaw counties, which are under a restraining order that prevents the sheriffs from arresting violators of the new law and the local district attorney from prosecuting them.

"That should not be construed as a green light to engage in the (cockfighting) activity," Edmondson said.

The restraining order is in effect until the first scheduled court battle over the constitutionality of the law Nov. 18, but that won't stop cockfighters from being prosecuted if the law is ultimately found constitutional.

"If the statute is upheld, anyone who violated it in the interim may be in jeopardy," Edmondson said.

Similar to the two-decade-old dog-fighting statute, people who breed, raise, sell or transport gamecocks for the purpose of fighting could face up to 10 years in prison and/or fines of up to $25,000, he said.

Howard said he would not be opposed to getting a clarification of enforcement issues.

One big issue cockfighting proponents are unclear on is what constitutes intent to fight. Edmondson said any number of things could qualify and prosecutors will have to look at numerous things to make their case.

"Not the least of which would be two people putting chickens in a pit designed for fighting," he said.

He said his office has sent information to help guide sheriffs and district attorneys in the enforcement of the new law. He said prosecutors deal daily with intent elements in numerous crimes.

Meanwhile, the cockfighting battle shows little sign of letting up as old foes take their places once again.

"All that fighting stuff, I agree that needs to go," Howard said. "But taking the animals is wrong. I don't think our founding fathers would approve of it ... What's to prevent that from happening to people who own gerbils?"

Said Halliburton: "It was a landslide victory to ban cockfighting. All this posturing by the cockfighters is just giving them additional days to indulge in their bloody cruelty to animals and in illegal gambling activities."