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WI - Convicted felons hunting illegally

DNR, DOC teaming up to find felons who may be hunting illegally
KAREN RIVEDAL
608-252-6106
krivedal@madison.com 

In a first-of-its-kind effort with the Department of Natural Resources, state probation agents went door-to-door across Wisconsin this fall to check if convicted felons who purchased gun hunting licenses this year were also illegally possessing firearms, eventually arresting 19 of them.

"This was a significant effort and a really important initiative," Department of Corrections spokesman John Dipko told the State Journal Thursday.

"This is the first sharing of data of this kind (between the DNR and DOC), and we worked with law enforcement and took folks into custody if we found evidence that they broke the law."

And the effort isn't over yet. The data analyzed for the 19 arrests covered gun hunting license sales up to mid-November. The DOC is now checking licenses sold during the nine-day gun deer hunting season that ended Nov. 25, with more offenders being taken into custody as a result.

Both efforts seek to address a long-standing problem under state law in which convicted felons legally cannot possess a firearm but are able to buy hunting licenses.

State officials don't know how many felons who obtained licenses actually used them. Typically, violators have been caught in the past only if they were cited for other violations while hunting.

That creates a potentially dangerous situation for other hunters and for the DNR wardens who encounter felons illegally possessing firearms, officials said.

"This new initiative augments the ongoing efforts by our DNR wardens and others to promote safer Wisconsin woods for everyone," DNR Secretary Matt Frank said in a statement.

Dipko said he didn't know how many of the 19 felons who were arrested in the initial sweep are still in custody. They could face charges related to firearm possession or for any unrelated rule violations that agents identified during home visits, interviews and other investigative activities.

Penalties for conviction range from additional supervision rules to fines or imprisonment if supervision is revoked. Dipko said the investigations began in mid-November.

Agents statewide started with a total of 62 felons to check on, Dipko said. That's how many names initially were produced by cross-checking the DOC's list of felons under active community supervision against the DNR's list of hunting license purchases.

All but 19 of those dropped off the list after investigators ruled out certain felons, including those who had the licenses but had no guns or those who had been sent back to prison for other reasons since buying the licenses.

Also, despite a state law that bans convicted felons for life from possessing firearms, the DOC cannot take action against felons who possess guns but are no longer under state supervision.

"That's where our jurisdiction ends," Dipko said. "We wouldn't be able to pursue an investigation (in those cases)."

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel first reported on the potential of felons using firearms to hunt in a story on Oct. 30. The newspaper compared names in the DNR and DOC databases for 2006 and found 77 felons had bought gun deer hunting licenses that year.

The newspaper also found the state was making no effort to monitor whether felons bought gun hunting licenses. Vendors who sell the licenses aren't require to conduct criminal background checks, and no state agency had attempted to compare the two databases before, Dipko said.

"We've been trying to come up with a way to do this . . . for a year or so, because we did know that (working together) like this would be helpful for us in holding offenders accountable," Dipko said.

Dipko acknowledged the DOC's crackdown has sparked criticism from some who say the state shares the blame for the situation because of the conflicting laws and the lack of accountability in the past. But he said that didn't excuse felons from breaking the law.

"The fact of the matter is that felons who are under the supervision of the DOC sign agreements that state very clearly they are not to possess any weapons and that they are also expected to follow the laws," he said. "This communication has always been quite clear between the agent and the offender."

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