With an etymologist’s flair, court upholds deer pursuer’s conviction

If you’re dressed in blaze orange during deer hunting season, holding a 12-gauge shotgun, sitting on an ATV in a camouflage deer blind, and four deer slugs sitting beside you, what are you doing?

A three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled today that you’re hunting, when it shot down the attempt of a man in Stearns County to get out of a hunting-without-a-license violation.

At his trial, Roger Schmid argued that none of that evidence was sufficient to convict him after a DNR conservation officer cited him in November 2011 for not having the proper license to take another deer after he’d shot one the night before. He was nature watching, coyote hunting, or sitting near some friends who were hunting — all excuses he gave to the DNR officer.

The Minnesota law that prohibits hunting without a license says in part, “A person may not take deer without a license.” Schmid argued he wasn’t “taking” a deer, which he claimed is “pursuing, shooting, killing, capturing, trapping, snaring, angling, spearing, or netting wild animals,” none of which he was doing.

If he was just sitting there, Schmid argued, he couldn’t be “pursuing” a deer.

“It would be silly to limit it to that meaning, especially in the deer-hunting context,” Judge Kevin Ross wrote in today’s decision, which cited the Declaration of Independence, the dictionary, the Bible, and Outdoor Life and Field and Stream magazines.

“Pursue” has become a broadly nuanced verb. It dates back more than seven centuries, and it evolved into English by way of Middle English from Anglo-Norman from Vulgar Latin from Latin. It shares a root variant with the Latin word meaning “to follow,” from which we derive “suit” and “pursuit.” Not surprisingly then, its specific meaning today varies widely depending mainly on its context while its general meaning “to follow” is constant. For example, Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation where everyone could pursue happiness. One biblical writer urges believers to “[p]ursue peace with all men.” Hebrews 12:14 (New American Standard Bible). Athletes pursue championships and students pursue degrees. Justice William Mitchell wrote about pursuing a course, a proceeding, and a remedy, among other things.

So while a “pursuit” might involve a foot chase, it need not. A young romantic “pursues” a mate, ordinarily without a foot chase. We are not confused that a police officer both pursues her career and pursues a suspect. The varied current meaning includes “to chase,” as Schmid contends, but it also includes “to seek after; to try to obtain or accomplish.”

“Pursue” is similarly nuanced in the hunting context. For example, the hunter commonly pursues (as in “seeks after” or “tries to obtain”) game birds using a flushing dog. The dog runs ahead to ruffle the brush, frightening the birds and exposing them to the hunter’s shot as they take flight. The hunter has moved into the birds’ habitat intending to fire on them when he has the chance. The armed hunter tromping through the brush is pursuing the birds. No direct chasing is involved; the hunter need not take flight. This is undisputed, as Schmid conceded through counsel at oral argument that entering pheasant habitat in this way constitutes “pursuing” pheasants in a pheasant hunt.

Judge Ross also factored in Schmid’s “credibility deficit” by citing multiple excuses for what he was doing.

Here’s the full decision.