New Jersey Herald Newspaper — Susan Kehoe, of Highland Lakes, a prominent anti-hunt activist, was acquitted Tuesday on a charge of feeding bears.
By ROB JENNINGS email@example.com newton herald 9/12/12
VERNON -- A prominent anti-hunt activist was acquitted Tuesday by a municipal judge of deliberately feeding bears on her property last December.
Judge James Devine's verdict, which concluded a three-hour trial, raised questions about the enforceability of New Jersey's 2002 law prohibiting the deliberate feeding of bears.
Susan Kehhoe, a Highland Lakes resident, was congratulated by about 10 supporters who joined her in court.
"I'm very much relieved," said Kehoe, who had denied the charge.
The case was perhaps the first legal test of the decade-old state law, which was enacted to discourage people from deliberately feeding bears, a dangerous practice which can cause bears to lose their instinctive fear of humans.
Devine said he agreed with Municipal Prosecutor Michael Hanifan's contention that Kehoe was responsible for Kibbles, sunflower seeds and peanut butter scattered on her property and consumed by bears who allegedly left behind more than 50 mounds of excrement.
The judge added, though, that homeowners can legally feed such items to a wide range of animals -- a point raised by Kehoe's attorney, Dan Perez -- and that there was no evidence that Kehoe intended to feed bears.
"I cannot get into the defendant's head," Devine said.
Devine, in announcing his decision, said he knew of only four other cases in which someone had been charged under the law, which carries a civil fine of up to $1,000 but no criminal penalty. To have convicted Kehoe, Devine would have only had to have found her guilty by a "preponderance of the evidence," rather than the higher threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases.
Perez, in court, dismissed the prosecution's case as "a gigantic guess."
"Where is the evidence that Susan Kehoe intended to feed bears? There is none," Perez said.
Perez said that sunflower seeds and other food items on the property are often used, legally, by people to feed a wide range of animals.
"Maybe Ms. Kehoe was feeding a raccoon," he hypothesized.
Devine, as he began his ruling, initially seemed to be siding with Hanifan, who noted that Kehoe had been issued a written warning three years earlier for allegedly feeding bears.
The judge said he found "extremely credible" two state conservation officers who testified about finding the Kibbles, sunflower seeds, a peanut butter can and excrement on Kehoe's property Dec. 8.
The officers went to her home after Kehoe complained about three hunters who purportedly were trespassing.
Devine said he was "not impressed" with the testimony of Kehoe's neighbor, fellow anti-hunt activist Angi Metler, who claimed to have never seen any signs of food or bear damage on Kehoe's property.
Devine said he agreed that the evidence indicated that Kehoe supplied food that was consumed by bears.
The judge emphasized, though, that did not necessarily prove that Kehoe intended to feed bears.
He cited "a lack of direct proof" about what had transpired last winter.
The judge's announcement of an acquittal was received with loud cheers from the supporters of Kehoe who sat through the trial.
Kehoe, referring to Devine, said, "He made the right decision."
Hanifan, in seeking a conviction, had cited the old law school adage that, if one goes to bed on a clear night and wakes up with snow outside, that it is reasonable to conclude that it snowed overnight.
The judge ruled that a higher standard should apply.
Tuesday's verdict followed a lengthy municipal court hearing featuring three witnesses, a videotape taken by Kehoe purportedly of a trespassing hunter, and an unusual array of evidence such as a bag of Kibbles.
Kehoe did not testify.
Testimony involved matters not usually heard in municipal court.
Presenting a set of evidence photos, Hanifan stated, "I'm going to show you four separate piles of bear scat."
"The truth is in the scat," he later said.