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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Tiger Man

One of the things that I love about my job is that it's always something different.  Even when you've seen a million people come into the criminal justice system on a common charge like DWI, someone will do something like this.  My message to Mike Adamle: dancing during field sobriety tests doesn't prove your sobriety.  It proves you're drunk.  Dudes only dance after boozing.  Case closed...

A drunk, break dancing, former sportscaster is one thing.  That is the funny sort of different in my job.  Sometimes, my job is the weird kind of different.  Sometimes a defendant has done something that is so completely out there, that it opens me up to a whole new world of crazy that I never knew existed.  That's what happened with The Tiger Man. 

Small town prosecution

The case comes out of a small town that I used to prosecute for a few years ago.  One thing I learned from working there is that people who live out in the country are very protective of what they can and cannot do with their land.  If you live in a big city or suburb, then you know that you need to keep your house up to code.  Cut the grass, pick up the dog crap, don't paint your house neon green, etc.  You just expect that if your house becomes an eye sore, you might be getting a citation in the mail.

But everyone that I ever prosecuted for nuisance property issues in a small town was always God's gift to property rights.  They never get a lawyer, because they've read the Constitution...at least the part they say about "Life, Liberty, and Property."  Well, that's the Declaration of Independence...and it's "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness", but that's besides the point. 

I've learned a few things from prosecuting these sorts of people.  First of all, don't try to instruct them on the actual law.  As with the Tea Party Movement, the only law that applies to them is the law that supports their position.  They don't want to hear it. 

(Here's some quick legal advice.  Your property rights come from the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which among other things states that you cannot be deprived of property without due process.  That doesn't give you a right to property so much as it gives me, the State, the right to take it away.  All I have to do is give you due process.  If you read this far, that will be $300 please.  I take all major forms of payment.)

Second, don't try to tell them how they need to use their land.  Most often, in addition to their selective legal memory, these folk also have 20 junk cars in their front yard that are "collectors".  If you point out to them that the only thing the cars are collecting are rust and woodlen creatures, they don't seem to get it.  It's not just a simple case of hoarding.  Hoarders are generally ashamed of what their property has become.  These folk are proud of their junk.  In fact, my conclusion on the whole thing is that they have the junk just because of how much they believe that they can do whatever they want on their own property.

Look, it's a limited edition shitbucket!  I simply MUST have one!

So people do some pretty crazy things with their property.  Junk properties are only the tip of the iceberg.  I've prosecuted people for everything from operating an illegal dirt bike track on their back 40 acres, chop shops in their barns, to burying toxic waste.  But I don't think anything could prepare me for this: 

This isn't a head-shot from Siegfried and Roy's porn collection.  It's one of the tigers I had seized for some nut job during my first and only (I hope) prosecution for tiger possession (A man I will refer to as "The Tiger Man").  This guy had two tigers actually, which he kept in a series of chain-link fences outside of his back patio.  Talk about a bad landscaping job!

A brief history of The Tiger Man

The first time I ever heard about The Tiger Man, it was from the city building code inspector.  What?!  Keeping man-eating predators in your yard violates the building code?!  There goes my piranha pond!  But anyway, he informed me that someone had reported the tigers after a real estate showing at the house next to The Tiger Man's.  Apparently having large cats nearby your property isn't a selling feature.

While his agent was showing him the residence, one of the neighbors came over and told this unfortunate homebuyer, "Before you buy this house, you have to go see the tigers."  Fair warning, but I would have approached the conversation a different way.  The phrase that immediately comes to mind is, "STAY AWAY!  THERE'S FRICKEN TIGERS NEXT DOOR!"  But to this neighbor, the tigers were just another feature to throw in the plus/minus column along with the number of bathrooms in the house.

The neighbor might have been so nonchalant because The Tiger Man has owned a veritable zoo for over a decade.  I read police reports where neighbors complained about things like wolves howling, camels bleating, and big cats roaring in The Tiger Man's backyard since the 1990s.  Apparently these people were used to their neighborhood sounding like the Serengeti.

The Humane Society

I'm not sure why nobody had done anything about this problem sooner, but I felt like I had to do something.  According to the locals, these tigers had gotten out of their cage before and run wild throughout the city a while back.  I wasn't going to allow these tigers to star in an episode of "When Animals Attack" on my watch.

So I called the Animal Humane Society Investigations Division.  I was put in contact with the Minnesota version of the Crocodile Hunter.  He came to my office in a kind of mobile assault vehicle, with enough hooks, collars, and tranquilizers to capture a whole zoo. 

I learned a lot about large animal stuff in my chat with him, and some of it is interesting enough to share.  First, I learned that large animal capture and containment is a pretty robust business.  I was given a number of different advertisements for these services, and allowed to choose who would be taking the tigers.  Having no frame of reference, I chose based on how cool the containment equipment sounded.  I also found out that the owner of the company I chose couldn't come get the tigers right away because he was bow hunting for grizzly.  If that's what he did in his spare time, I felt like this capture would be a cake walk for him.  He was the guy for me.

I also learned that the trade in wild animals is equally robust.  You don't have to look very hard to find a retailer who wants to help you with your own starter zoo.  If you type "Exotic Animals for Sale" into Google, you'll get several pages of vendors.  That's because, as this Crocodile Dundee look-a-like explained, there's nothing illegal about selling exotic animals.  No federal or state law prohibits it.  It's not even illegal to possess these animals under Minnesota state law, so long as they are properly registered. 

So unless your city passes a wild animal ordinance (and most have), you can get Simba Fed-Ex'ed to your door by the end of the week.  Even then, possession of these animals will only be a misdemeanor.  The potential of a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail isn't exactly scaring anyone straight either, and as such The Tiger Man had been at this game for years, with virtually no consequences.

The takedown

The capture and containment of the tigers was a two-pronged attack.  Mine was the boring, legal prong.  So, as if hearing about these tigers wasn't enough, Mr. Homebuyer had gone over to The Tiger Man's house to see them.  Not wanting to be a bad host, The Tiger Man led him through his house to his back patio, where the tigers were sitting around doing tiger stuff. 

That sighting gave us enough probable cause to draft a search warrant.  So I made one up and got a judge to sign it.  I believe the judge's exact words when signing it were, "I'm not going to be on the news, am I?"

With search warrant in hand, Ranger Rick from the Humane Society went over to Tiger Man's house along with several sheriff's deputies and the containment unit.  The plan was to shoot the tiger up with tranquilizer, and then load him into a steel cage.  The containment guy would then drive up with a flatbed truck equip with a crane...like Optimus Prime before he transforms.  He would load up the cage on the flatbed and drive it back to his containment facility.  The deputies were there to shoot the tiger if anything went wrong.  I'm sure it wasn't exactly what they had planned for that particular shift of work. 

The end?

There's nothing much exciting to report about the capture.  It went off without a hitch.  The tigers are now safe at a tiger sanctuary in a confidential location.  Hopefully in time they will be moved off to a zoo, or reintegrated into the wild.

We never prosecuted The Tiger Man.  In the end we opted only for a civil remedy, and seized the animals under the Minnesota animal cruelty laws, because although they were well-fed and cared for, their shelters were insufficient to protect them from the elements.  They probably wouldn't have survived the winter.

From what I hear, the saga goes on with The Tiger Man.  I don't work for that city anymore, but I word is that they are still dealing with this guy because he now has a couple of camels.  I guess some people never learn...


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