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Va. Hunter Drinking Limits Eyed

By Chris L. Jenkins

RICHMOND, Feb. 15 -- The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill to impose strict blood alcohol limits on hunters, angering gun enthusiasts who say the legislation unjustly targets their right to bear arms.

It is illegal in Virginia to "hunt with firearms" when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But Senate Bill 1149 further clarifies the state code so that a hunter who had a blood alcohol content of .02 would be guilty of a misdemeanor. That's tougher than the state's drunken driving standard. Motorists are legally drunk when their blood alcohol content is .08.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate this month. It is scheduled to be heard by a House Committee this week.

"Obviously everyone wants those who hunt to be safe at all times . . . that's really the only purpose of this bill," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), the bill's sponsor and an avid hunter.

Stolle said that initially he had set the legal limit at .08 to match the drunken driving standard, but Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) successfully proposed the lower level. Norment said there should be a "zero tolerance" alcohol level for hunting.

State officials at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said they requested the legislation because the code regarding alcohol and hunting is vague. The state statute says, "It shall be unlawful for any person to hunt with firearms in the Commonwealth of Virginia while under the influence of alcohol, or . . . any narcotic drug."

"We wanted to make it as close as possible to the driving code and the boating code," said Charlie Sledd, program development director for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The law "isn't very specific," he said. "We needed a better enforcement tool for [game wardens] in dealing with particular circumstances that might involve hunting while intoxicated."

The bill's fate is uncertain because groups that support the rights of gun owners say that the blood alcohol standard the bill sets is much too low. They point out that if the commonwealth trusted drivers to have a low amount of alcohol in their blood, it should trust hunters as well.

"I'd have no problem with the .08, but .02 is ridiculous," said Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights advocacy group. "You can reach .02 by taking some cough syrup."

Several delegates said the bill might raise constitutional issues because it holds that persons arrested for hunting while intoxicated have consented to a breathalyzer test by the mere act of hunting. The right to hunt is guaranteed by the Virginia constitution, and some lawmakers said the state cannot impose such "implied consent" on hunters in the same way it is applied to drivers and boaters to take a breathalyzer test.

"It could be a problem if . . . the bill says that by merely hunting you're consenting to be searched," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who sits on the Courts of Justice Committee, which is scheduled to review the bill. "Philosophically, that would be tough for me to overcome."

Supporters countered that a game warden or police officer would have to have reasonable suspicion before checking the sobriety of a hunter.

"It would be no different than a traffic stop," said Norment, who is also an avid hunter.

Scholars said it would be hard to challenge the constitutionality of the bill because the state code allows lawmakers to make certain judgments on regulating behavior.

"It's hard to see how a court could limit the General Assembly's ability to make certain decisions on public health," said A.E. Dick Howard, a law professor at the University of Virginia and state constitution expert.

Virginia would be one of a handful of states -- including Maryland -- considering legislation that would clamp down on the mix of hunting and alcohol. A bill in New York would set the blood alcohol content level there at .08. Wisconsin is considering a provision, similar to the one proposed in Virginia, that would allow authorities to test hunters for alcohol.

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