Jurisdictional issues play into cockfighting controversy

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Animal rights activists prosecuting cockfighters in Oklahoma may have their efforts thwarted by unanswered questions about state and tribal criminal jurisdiction. (File photo)

Animal rights activists prosecuting cockfighters in Oklahoma may have their efforts thwarted by unanswered questions about state and tribal criminal jurisdiction.

Although cockfighting is banned on both state and tribal lands, animal rights groups investigating possible cockfights in Atoka County are trying to get law enforcement authorities that they lodge a complaint against the presumed offenders.

Washington, DC-based Animal Wellness Action and Illinois-based SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) have been using drones and investigators for several years to pursue suspected cockfighting individuals in Oklahoma.

Among the information the AWA turned over to law enforcement were several videos released in the Philippines featuring Oklahoma game bird breeders. In the videos, the breeders discuss their birds and cockfighting in general with the show’s hosts, though they don’t discuss any cockfighting events taking place in Oklahoma. Cockfighting is a billion dollar legal industry in the Philippines.

On June 26, 2022, SHARK activists were in Oklahoma using drones to film activity and collect license plate numbers from a group of about 60 visiting wagons at private property where a fight of roosters was suspected to take place.

During the incident, a SHARK investigator had an encounter with a local resident that resulted in an assault charge, described in an incident report filed by Officer Kevin Anderson with the County Sheriff’s Office. ‘Atoka. The report says Anderson has confirmed that the person charged with the assault, Robert Baughman, is a member of the Choctaw tribe.

“Atoka County, being part of the Choctaw Nation, I forwarded all information I had gathered to the Choctaw Nation Tribal Police to continue the prosecution process,” the report said. Anderson.

SHARK founder and president Steve Hindi posted a video on YouTube claiming that the owner, Kimberly Baughman, is also a member of the tribe and that the land in question is on Choctaw land, so the case was entrusted to the Choctaw Nation.

But Randy Sachs, public relations director for the Choctaw Nation, said the tribe has not taken over the cockfighting investigation.

“They passed us an assault charge, and the Choctaw Tribal Police started that investigation, but that’s the only charge we have,” Sachs said. “Initially, the Atoka County Sheriff’s Department mentioned that they handed over everything to us, but not the actual cockfighting issue, because that’s not our jurisdiction. The landowner is not a member of the tribe.

In the 20 years since Oklahoma voters banned cockfighting in the state, the question of how offenses on Indian lands should be handled has been debated many times in court. Yet the confusion still persists.

In 2019, a federal grand jury indicted a former Caddo County deputy sheriff for staging cockfights on Indian land; the defendant testified that he knew cockfighting was banned in the state, but mistakenly believed he was allowed to hold cockfighting on allotted Indian land.

Shortly after the state ban on cockfighting went into effect in 2002, a group attempted to circumvent the law by purchasing licenses from tribal entities in Oklahoma to hold cockfighting on tribal lands. The plan failed, as tribal leaders denounced the practice and said cockfighting was also against the law on tribal lands.

In 2011, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of one of 75 people charged with crimes after a 2006 raid on a cockfight on Native American land in Oklahoma, finding the federal government no has no jurisdiction over a victimless crime involving a non-Indian. .

Then, in 2012, Michael Turner, a man the courts have described as a “cockfighting fanatic,” sued Kiowa tribal officials for failing to declare that a cockfight took place on land. Indians to stop state prosecution. The federal court dismissed the case, finding that the Kiowa judges were entitled to sovereign immunity.

On July 15, 2022, AWA President Wayne Pacelle issued a press release claiming that Atoka County Sheriff Tony Head was not properly enforcing the state’s anti-cockfighting law. .

“Animal Wellness Action has acted on multiple tips about illegal cockfighting activities in Stringtown, Atoka County for two years,” Pacelle wrote. “After conducting inquiries to confirm the information provided to us, we informed Sheriff Head and his deputies of the upcoming cockfights, including location, time and even entry fees for the fights. of roosters. Not once has his office taken action to ban the fight, even though he has sworn to abide by Oklahoma law.

A spokesperson for the Atoka County Sheriff’s Office could not be reached for comment.

During the 2022 legislative session, State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, attempted to pass legislation to reduce penalties for cockfighting, which currently include a 10-year prison term. , but the measures were not adopted.

“If they wanted to go out and start enforcing these (laws), they could, especially in rural areas,” Humphrey said when his bill was proposed. “They could do it, but the majority of people would just be angry if they did. Here we have a situation where everyone knows it is happening, nothing is done.

Humphrey said he doesn’t want Oklahomans to face such harsh penalties simply for “raising a chicken.”

In February 2021, Hindi posted a video on YouTube claiming that the group had turned over documents of the cockfighting to the Atoka County Sheriff’s Department, and that deputies were then dispatched to break up an event believed to be a fight. of roosters.

“Based on our conversations with the sheriff’s deputies, we believe they are serious about dealing with these criminals and will join us in policing this property so they can make arrests,” Hindi said. in the May 2021 video.

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