The cold weather we are experiencing just now made me think of a case I dealt with in 2006 that had its origins in the contents of a freezer kept, surprisingly, in the garden. It is one of my longer tales, taken from my first book, Wildlife Detective, and is an excellent example of the different experts and skills required in many wildlife crime cases, and the difficulty in achieving a satisfactory conclusion in court. The tale is in three parts related over the next three days:
I had a telephone call mid-way through one morning I was intending to spend in the office catching up with paperwork. Several police officers were searching a house on the outskirts of Brechin having received information that a firearm was likely to be found there. They
had done their homework and established that no-one at that address was a firearm certificate holder. To search for a firearm or ammunition, police officers need to obtain a specially worded warrant authorising this type of search. Most searches carried out by police are in order to recover stolen property but in some cases, such as to recover firearms – as was the case here – to recover drugs or to carry out a search in relation to wildlife crimes, specially worded warrants are required. The officers did not find any firearm but in the course of their search they encountered a freezer in the garden. The garden is an odd place to keep a freezer unless it is an old retired freezer used as some sort of store. This freezer was a store of sorts, though it was far from retired and in addition was connected to the mains. It was full of dead animals and birds, which posed several problems for the officers. Their first problem was that they had no idea what species the animals and birds were or whether or not the occupant was allowed to keep them, hence the telephone call to me. I set off right away to meet them to see what help I could be.
An hour or so later I was being shown the freezer in the garden. I couldn’t believe that this freezer was live, out in the open during the month of February, and hadn’t blown up! I looked in and saw that it was full to the top of dead beasties in poly bags. The top layer seemed mostly to be roe buck heads and I was more interested to see what lay buried underneath. The second problem arose in relation to the legality of the search. The search warrant covered the searching for and seizure of firearms and ammunition. The roe buck heads tended to corroborate the initial information that there was a rifle somewhere but the seizure of any of the freezer contents was most certainly not covered by the warrant.
There were two or three ways round this. We could apply for a further warrant to seize the items in the freezer, but at that point we still didn’t know what was there and if whatever was there was legally held or otherwise. The freezer could still be fully searched as, even though unlikely, there was a possibility that a rifle was stashed underneath. I have certainly seen items, especially drugs, stashed in more unlikely places, for example inside light switches, electric fires, hollow doors and indeed inside fridges and freezers. The disadvantage of applying for a new warrant was the time that this would take: a report to the fiscal, a warrant typed out by the fiscal, then a meeting and discussion with a sheriff to have the warrant signed. Not exactly ten minutes work; more like half a day.
Next we could simply seize any illegally kept carcasses and use case law to defend our actions, arguing that if we had not taken the items they would have been spirited away. This is always open to argument in court and the arguments are not automatically won by the prosecution. On balance this was kicked into touch. The last option was explain to the suspect that the seizure of anything in the freezer was not covered by the warrant but that he could allow us to search the freezer for protected species if he wished, but that he was entitled to refuse. This was the best option and the one that we went for. The suspect agreed the request, signed the notebook of the senior police officer there to that effect, and the matter was resolved.
The search of the freezer was now over to me, and I decided to ask the suspect for his help. ‘You take the items out of the freezer one at a time and I’ll decide whether you can hold them legitimately or whether you might be committing an offence. We’ll make one pile of birds or animals that there is no problem with and another pile on which we will speak with you further.’ This was agreed and the suspect began on the top layer of the freezer. Several roe buck heads emerged which the suspect said he was going to stuff and mount. There was no problem with these – though I did wonder whether they had been taken legally – and they went into his pile.
I wondered what they might have looked like once the suspect had got to work on them. I had seen his only effort at taxidermy, which was a buzzard. The buzzard had been a falconer’s bird that he had obtained and kept for several years until it had died. In its mummified form it now looked nothing like the magnificent bird of prey it had once been, much more like an immature penguin in brown plumage. Strangely, the suspect was immensely proud of his first work, in the same manner as mothers always think their new-born baby is beautiful, and nothing at all resembling a gargoyle. The beauty of babies improves with age; no such prospect for a taxidermy specimen. The second layer of the freezer began to reveal its secrets. A short-eared owl and a barn owl were the first species in my pile, then a surprise, a canary. This had been a pet canary that had died and it was to be preserved for posterity, probably as something resembling a yellow duckling. I imagined it glued to a perch in a small cage, a silent yellow blob stuck at a jaunty angle with pride of place on a sideboard. It was sure to engender stimulating conversation. The next specimen was no less surprising. It had been another pet, a hamster. It could have been placed on the other end of the sideboard, probably in the guise of a miniature sunfish.
Several pheasants and ducks were produced, which added to the height of the householder’s pile, then a fox cub, which again joined his legally acquired specimens. Clearly many of the specimens had been in the freezer for some time as they were covered in ice, this in some cases making identification a bit more tricky. The suspect played on the opaqueness of the bags with the next specimen following the fox cub. ‘This is another fox cub,’ he said, about to throw it quickly on to his pile.
‘No,’ I said, that’s not a fox cub.’
‘It is’ he said, ‘It’s from the same litter as the other one.’
‘No it’s not,’ I said.
‘Honest,’ was the reply, ‘It’s just thinner than the first one.’
‘Wayne,’ I said, I’m a wildlife crime officer. I shoot, fish and know a bit about the countryside and its inhabitants.’
‘Sorry, you’re right,’ was the response, ‘it’s a pine marten.’