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
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
standard. Motorists are legally drunk when their blood alcohol content
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.
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
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
to a breathalyzer test by the mere act of hunting. The right to hunt
is guaranteed by the Virginia constitution, and some lawmakers said
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
"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
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.