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Owning a falcon shouldn’t mean sacrificing constitutional rights, lawsuit says

Falconer sues government to challenge warrantless searches

Peter Stavrianoudakis, a Modesto defense attorney and falconer, brings a lawsuit to prevent state and federal wildlife officials from entering his home unannounced just because he owns a bird of prey.
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Peter Stavrianoudakis, a Modesto defense attorney and falconer, brings a lawsuit to prevent state and federal wildlife officials from entering his home unannounced just because he owns a bird of prey.

Wearing a heavy leather glove on one hand, Peter Stavrianoudakis makes his way quickly through brush in a rural field outside of Hilmar, 20 miles south of Modesto. Several yards above, a sharp-clawed falcon glides in tight circles, intent on pouncing should his hunting partner’s stride flush out another bird to become the falcon’s dinner.

It’s a graceful alliance of man and beast, a coordinated endeavor, an elegant land-and-air pas de deux.

“This is a master-servant relationship, to be sure,” Stavrianoudakis says. “And I’m the servant.”

The thrill of this hunt comes at a price, however. The exhilarating sense of freedom in the field is dulled at home, because Stavrianoudakis never knows when armed government agents might show up and demand to search without a warrant.

It hasn’t happened in the four years Ares and Stavrianoudakis have been partners. He hasn’t been raided, in fact, since 1983 when he was handcuffed and terrorized by “gestapo tactics,” he says, without cause. But it could happen at any time, for no reason other than state or federal wildlife officers feel like it, because that’s the power their agencies have given themselves.

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Peter Stavrianoudakis with Ares, an aplomado falcon, in Hilmar, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. Andy Alfaro aalfaro@modbee.com

And that watching-over-your-shoulder feeling has gotten worse since Stavrianoudakis decided to sue both levels of government in federal court. Merely partnering with a bird of prey shouldn’t force him to give up his right to be safe from warrantless searches, the lawsuit says.

Modesto attorney has fewer rights than criminal clients

A deputy public defender in Stanislaus County, Stavrianoudakis is no stranger to the Modesto courthouse. It’s ironic, he says, that the clients he represents, including suspected murderers and rapists, have more protection against warrantless searches than he does simply because he owns a certain half-pound bird.

“If law enforcement wants to inspect a drug dealer, they get a warrant, meaning a judge has to say, `Yes, you can go search.’ Falconers? No need,” Stavrianoudakis said. “It’s an absolute abuse of discretion and power.”

His wife, Katherine, is not a falconer, although she loves Ares. But when she and her husband wed in 2014, she became subject to the same rules.

“Will they knock down my door, pin me down and put me in handcuffs because I do not want to cooperate with my rights being violated? All because I love and am married to a falconer?” she said in a court paper.

Ares, an aplomado falcon native to Central America although bred in captivity near Santa Cruz, roams their home at will, fluttering among perches with litter boxes beneath. When Peter wakes in the morning, Ares will flit to the bed, nuzzling his cheek and even preening the man’s ample, flowing beard.

“He’s a loving part of our family,” Stavrianoudakis says. “I’ve never loved a bird this much.”

And he’s known his share, having owned and hunted with about 15 raptors for the past 39 years. Ares, the most affectionate, is among the smallest and hunts only birds, some more than twice his size, like pigeons and doves; a hawk Stavrianoudakis had years ago was pushing 3 pounds and hunted jack rabbits.

Falconers generally acknowledge that their sport, one of the oldest in history, requires special treatment by the government. Beginners must be mentored by another experienced falconer, for instance. They also submit to scheduled property inspections before permits are granted, so wildlife officials can verify that these raptors have what they need to be clean, happy and safe from other pets and predators.

Many birds of prey are kept in mews, or cages in or adjacent to owners’ houses.

The U.S. Department of Justice, whose attorneys are defending the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the lawsuit, declined to comment for this story, and attorneys for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife did not respond.

But the state made its position clear in 2016 responses to comments from falconers and others affected by a proposed update to regulations, including warrantless searches.

Falconers know what they’re getting into when they sign up

“Every licensed falconer in California has agreed in writing at the time of application that their facilities are subject to unannounced inspections,” the state agency wrote. “This is a condition of engaging in the recreational activity of falconry. There is no right to practice falconry, and falconry regulations do not prohibit or require the keeping of raptors inside of homes.”

State and federal supreme courts have decided in favor of warrantless searches in other fishing and hunting practices. Both higher courts agreed that a game warden had authority to search the vehicle of a man who had caught a California spiny lobster out of season in 2007, even though the warden had only seen through a telescope 200 yards away Bouhn Maikhio fishing from an ocean pier in San Diego, and had no reason to think he’d caught anything.

Such stops apply to people “who have voluntarily chosen to engage in the heavily regulated activity of fishing or hunting and, as a consequence, have a diminished reasonable expectation of privacy,” Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the state’s chief justice, wrote in 2011.

But should such authority extend to someone’s home?

The Stavrianoudakis lawsuit is considered a test case that could have implications far beyond little Hilmar.

“The Fourth Amendment is a bedrock part of our bill of rights,” said Tim Snowball, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit advocating against government overreach. The group represents Peter and Katherine Stavrianoudakis in the lawsuit, as well as two other falconers and the American Falconry Conservancy.

It might make sense for government agents to conduct warrantless searches of, say, dealers trafficking in semiautomatic weapons or explosives, “when it’s overwhelmingly in the public interest,” Snowball said. “But it shouldn’t apply to homes and pet ownership.”

Falconers aren’t united behind the plaintiffs in this case, said John Goodell, an Oregon falconer who’s on the conservation committee of the North American Falconers Association, which bills itself as the largest falconry organization in the world based on membership.

He said part of the reason is that falconers largely have had positive relationships with the wildlife officers who enforce the rules that falconers helped draft in the 1970s to protect raptors from being exploited.

“I think that the notion that the agencies have been onerous in their regulations is really a misstatement of fact and history in the sense we’ve worked collaboratively with these agencies to create these rules, and over time they’ve become more liberalized,” Goodell said.

Another reason: many falconers aren’t fans of the Pacific Legal Foundation, Goodell said.

The nonprofit fought proposed federal rules intended to protect the greater sage grouse. The chicken-like birds’ numbers have been declining amid habitat loss. Falconers enjoy hunting the birds and would like to see sage grouse recover, Goodell said.

The Stavrianoudakis lawsuit also targets rules that other falconers find onerous. Their birds are prohibited from appearing in commercials or movies for pay. When falconers give presentations to schools or clubs, strict guidelines govern what they can and cannot say. Those rules violate First Amendment free speech rights, the lawsuit says.

“There really isn’t room for negotiation on these issues,” Stavrianoudakis said. “Either the Constitution applies to everybody, or nobody.

“I’ve built my whole career around making sure peoples’ rights aren’t stepped on, and here I’ve got a giant Fish and Wildlife footprint on my back. It goes beyond everything I stand for. The idea of bullies pushing their way into peoples’ homes is unconscionable and we’re not going to let it happen anymore.”

Ryan Sabalow of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.
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