Duck hunters ruffle some feathers

December 01, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

It was 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 16, the morning of the first day hunters could apply for duck hunting licenses in Maryland, and two sportsmen had just set up camp in front of the Washington County Circuit Court building.

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Steve Smith, of Taneytown, Md., and William R. Harner Sr., of Detour, Md., had gotten coveted spots on the Potomac River near Barnes Island off Sandy Hook the year before and were determined to get them again.

When the doors to the courthouse on West Washington Street opened at 8 a.m., Smith and Harner were shocked to find that two other men who were after the same area were waiting in the hallway outside the clerk's office.

Joseph Michael, an assistant Washington County state's attorney, and Kevin Morgan, a Washington County sheriff's deputy, beat Smith and Harner to the punch.


Like other county prosecutors, Michael can go inside the building at any time to use the law library. He entered at about 12:30 a.m. that morning and let Morgan in at about 2 a.m., according to Circuit Court Clerk Dennis J. Weaver.

Weaver said he took all four men at their word as to when they arrived and awarded the licenses to Michael and Morgan.

Morgan got two spots near the island. Michael got a spot off the southern tip of the island and another about a mile downstream from the Md. 34 bridge. At least temporarily.

Smith and Harner were given an opportunity to get a duck blind license for somewhere else, but they declined.

"They left unhappy," Weaver said.

The Department of Natural Resources, which received a complaint, ordered Weaver to void the licenses two weeks later after determining that they were improperly issued, DNR spokesman John Surrick said.

Morgan could not be reached for comment.

Michael said he did nothing wrong.

"I got there first," he said. "I followed the rules I felt I got them fair and square."

Michael said he did not unfairly use his position to get the licenses, noting that he arrived hours before the other two.

"The point is that I didn't jump to the front of the line," he said.

But the dispute calls into question whether public employees who work in the courthouse have an unfair advantage over the general public on first-come, first-serve matters.

"In retrospect, yes they did," Weaver said.

Surrick said everyone should be in the same position.

Michael said he would have beaten Smith and Harner to the clerk's office anyway, since the door facing Summit Avenue opens an hour before the main entrance on West Washington Street where Smith and Harner entered.

Michael said it was appropriate for him to wait inside since nearby Jonathan Street is unsafe at night - particularly for someone who has prosecuted hundreds of felons in the area.

"I had a choice not to (wait outside) and I opted not to," he said.

Weaver sent a letter to Morgan and Michael on Aug. 27 informing them that their licenses had been voided.

On Aug. 30, Harner and Smith each got a license for the spots off of Barnes Island that Morgan had claimed.

The following day, Michael reapplied for the spot off the southern tip of the island, as well as two more locations along the river.

"Those guys got what they wanted," he said. "I have the same blind site now as I ever did. I don't feel like I lost anything."

Disputes over duck hunting licenses have been fierce in counties near the Chesapeake Bay, where the sport is more popular, Weaver said. Disagreements have led to fistfights in the past.

But this was the first time two groups had clashed over blind sites in Washington County, Weaver said.

"A question came up later as to where the line forms," he said. "We never had a line before."

If he had to do it in the future, Weaver said he would post signs stating that the line began at the main entrance on West Washington Street.

Fortunately, Weaver said, it will not be his problem in the future. Beginning next year, the Department of Natural Resources, not the court clerk's office, will issue all hunting licenses in Maryland.

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