Well, it seems some distraught readers think my focus on the case of Alvin and Paul Sowinski, and the government’s pursuit of them for allegedly poisoning wildlife, is a bit extreme.
This might be a good time to offer them Barry Goldwater’s sage advice: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
In two words, that’s what this story is all about: defending liberty. It’s about defending liberty against the very government that’s supposed to guarantee it.
That’s certainly not what the government is about these days. In these Orwellian years, the government is becoming, and perhaps has already become, the very antithesis of freedom. Like our distraught readers, it views people who take liberty seriously – and thus who value the U.S. Constitution – as the enemy. We are the extremists.
But the true extremism is stewing inside the government. It starts at the top, in the White House, where the constitution is looked upon with disdain, as so many words to be deconstructed before our eyes. It filters down to law enforcement, who don military garb so they can take to the streets of America to look for enemies of the state. (I wrote that before the over-the-top behavior of law enforcement in Missouri, but that merely underscores the point).
It finds its way to prosecutors, who deem it necessary to put away dangerous outlaws – you know the type, those despicable men and women who donate large sums of money to their communities and work tirelessly for civic causes – in order to protect the community from them.
After all, civic involvement is a sign of patriotism, and patriotism is a sign of a passion for liberty.
It certainly was not my intention to write another column about the Sowinskis. They have suffered enough from too many headlines and from an overbearing, out-of-control government. Surely, after reporting on the military-style invasion of their property and the multitude of violations of their constitutional rights, that would be enough to make the point that a rogue government exists.
But then the time for sentencing came – each man on a single misdemeanor count of illegally possessing a bald eagle – and there was more stunning behavior. With their sentencing recommendation, the prosecutors achieved what I thought they could not achieve: An outrageous government trumped its own outrageousness.
The defense, of course, wanted a modest term of probation or a fine. That would have fit with the sentences imposed on others convicted of similar offenses as well as with the spirit of a plea deal the Sowinskis struck with prosecutors – which included the payment of $100,000 in restitution and a ban on hunting privileges of at least five years for each man. It also left open the possibility of up to a year in jail.
A pre-sentence investigation report recommended penalties somewhere in a middle range, placing Alvin Sowinski in a sentencing range of between four months and the maximum and Paul Sowinski in a range of zero to six months. It called for the hunting, fishing and trapping ban of five years.
All in all, it was a pretty stiff recommendation for two men who had no prior criminal records, who were leaders of the community, and who were being sentenced for a misdemeanor.
But the government wanted more. A lot more. The government didn’t want a five-year ban on hunting, fishing and trapping – it wanted a 15-year ban. And prosecutors didn’t want to dilly-dally around with light prison sentences; they wanted what amounted to about the maximum year in jail for each man.
Why? It’s a question all of us should be asking the government.
Why should 78-year-old Alvin Sowinski have gone to jail for killing predators on his farm, including four eagles – maybe – when wind farms violate the same law with impunity and kill far more protected birds, including eagles, all without prosecution? Why should Alvin Sowinski have gone to jail when his activity has stopped forever, while the unpunished captains of the wind industry not only continue and expand their practices but have been given explicit permission by the Obama administration to do so for the next 30 years?
Guess those eagles aren’t so valuable, after all.
Why should Paul Sowinski have gone to jail when he never poisoned a single animal? Not one. His crime was to confess to disposing of one already dead eagle. For this the feds wanted to throw the book at him.
According to the government, it’s because these are flawed men who aren’t capable of change. Here’s how the government put it:
“Their conduct shows utter disregard for the criminal justice system and law enforcement. They are evidencing every reason to think they are above the law and will continue to act as they please.”
The problem is, there’s not one shred of evidence that any of what the government contends is true. The government presented nothing in support of such claims.
Indeed, the two men accepted responsibility for their actions, which have ceased and which Paul Sowinski never condoned in the first place, and no criminal past or pattern of behavior exists to suggest it would continue.
And just how flawed are the Sowinskis?
This newspaper has reported a string of their contributions to the community welfare, including, as their attorney pointed out, building snowmobile trails and opening the family’s land to the trails; donating time and equipment for snowmobiling and for a park and sports complex in Sugar Camp for use by the town’s youth club; supporting an annual baseball tournament for the Sugar Camp Youth Club; providing financial support to the area volunteer fire departments, local civic organizations like the Lions Club, and local school districts, including a program to send local school children on field trips to Washington, D.C., and funding college scholarships.
Flawed, flawed, flawed.
Thankfully, the judge in the case recognized the absurdity of the government’s proposed sentences and arguments and gave the Sowinskis probation and hefty fines, with Alvin Sowinski earning a four-month home detention. The hunting, fishing and trapping ban remained at five years.
But the question remains: Why would the government pursue such an outrageous sentence in the first place?
It has been suggested, inaccurately, that the government was merely posturing, that is, it was proposing a stiffer sentence than it really wanted to pressure the Sowinskis into a plea deal. That is business as usual in some cases.
But in this case, both the government and the Sowinskis had already accepted a plea deal. The government was urging the judge in the final act of the case to impose the stiffest sentence possible within the parameters of that deal. This was not a ploy to get the Sowinskis to deal or negotiate; they were done dealing and had nothing to negotiate.
No, this was pure outright meanness and oppressiveness. The government had its boots on the Sowinskis’ necks, and they were pressing down. They wanted to wring every ounce of pain they could from these two civic leaders, when others who violate the same laws win the government’s approval.
If such vindictiveness seems inexplicable, it is not. There is a reason for such behavior, and I suggest readers look to the infamous Ruby Ridge incident to find the true answer.
Ruby Ridge was the site of a 1992 siege – the anniversary of which starts Aug. 21 – in which the government confronted Randy Weaver, his wife and children, and a friend, and, in the end, killed Weaver’s wife, his son and his dog.
They confronted the family at Ruby Ridge with armed forces of federal agents. They engaged in a military operation, employing snipers operating under military rather than civilian protocols for the use of deadly force – adults could be shot on sight without posing a threat of bodily harm and without warning – and sending out fly-over helicopters and surveillance teams.
The crime that set off everything? Weaver allegedly sold an informant two sawed-off shotguns that were shorter than the legal limit – a charge he denied. The government tried to leverage that accusation to turn Weaver into an informant himself. He refused, and the government, to make a long story short, decided to visit Hell upon him and his family.
In the end, the government paid Weaver and his surviving children $3.1 million to settle civil-rights charges brought by the family. Randy Weaver was acquitted of the charges against him, except for missing a court date on the original weapons charge, a date that had been incorrect in the notice sent to him.
Before we talk about the motives, it’s worth pointing out the eerie similarities between Ruby Ridge and the Sowinski case.
For one, U.S. agents had spent years trying to catch Weaver on various charges, including firearms, just as the government tried for years to find something to pin on the Sowinskis.
As in the Sowinski case, the government used an undercover agent to try and induce Weaver into illegal acts. As in the Sowinski case, the government surveilled the Weavers’ home and property.
As in the Sowinski case, the government made outrageous claims without supporting evidence, among them, that Weaver was a bank robber with criminal convictions; he had no criminal record. They said he fired on a surveillance helicopter; the pilot later denied it. The list went on.
The government prepared a threat profile that ramped up the caricature of Weaver as a threatening man. The profile was based almost entirely on hearsay and gossip – the same kind of information law enforcement relied upon heavily to construct their case against the Sowinskis and to build their unflattering and “dangerous” profile of them – and, as a 1995 report by a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee pointed out, a lot of the information turned out to be wrong.
“If the Marshals made any attempt to assess the credibility of the various people who gave them information about Weaver, they never recorded their assessments,” the panel wrote about Ruby Ridge.
The very same thing could be said about law-enforcement’s recordings of gossips and rumors about the Sowinskis: The government believed anybody who had anything bad to say about them, with no concern about credibility.
As for the use of military-style rules of engagement – hey, shoot them on sight – the difference between the outcome at Ruby Ridge and in Sugar Camp was that deadly force wasn’t used in Sugar Camp – though it was at the property, at the ready – perhaps because of the reforms implemented after Ruby Ridge.
Why did the government overreact at Ruby Ridge? The records make it pretty clear. Weaver distrusted government; he made that known to government agents; he would not become a snitch or otherwise do what the government wanted him to do; he associated with, or at least attended a meeting of, a white separatist group – in the government’s mind, all these things convicted him as an enemy of the state.
The government viewed him as an combatant, in other words, a political enemy because he wasn’t compliant, didn’t like them, and held anti-government views.
It had absolutely nothing to do with two sawed-off shotguns.
I would submit that the very same thinking was at work in the Sowinski case. The Sowinskis weren’t involved with fringe groups, but Alvin Sowinski’s distrust of government and the DNR was known, and so he became – and by association so did his family – an enemy of the state. And so, the record makes undoubtedly clear, the government spent years concocting a scheme to “get them.”
It had absolutely nothing to do with one – or even four – poisoned eagle.
That’s what this invasion and prosecution was all about – getting a political enemy. The government cares not about protecting wildlife from deliberately placed insecticide but about protecting people from deliberately spreading their constitutionalist and libertarian views.
No, deadly force wasn’t used against the Sowinskis, but the government action against them and their family was violent just the same. It is a brutal reminder of the rogue government at work in the United States of America today.
Richard Moore may be reached at richardmoore@rmmoore1/com.