Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
Robert G. Neal Jr., second from left, accepts TPWD’s inaugural Prosecutor of the Year award. He is joined by TPW Commission Chairman Ralph H. Duggins, Col. Grahame Jones and Executive Director Carter Smith.
East Texas Law
First TPWD Prosecutor of the Year takes poaching personally.
by Angela Morris
When Bobby Neal was a kid, deer hunting with his dad and grandpa was different from the way it is today when he hunts with his sons in the East Texas Pineywoods.
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have any deer in East Texas, at least our part,” says Neal, who was born and raised in Sabine County. “If you saw a deer track, you talked about it for a week.”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spent decades restoring deer to East Texas, which now boasts a healthy whitetail population.
Just as the generation that grew up in the Great Depression knew the true value of a dollar, Neal, about to celebrate his 50th birthday, says that early experience gave him great respect for wildlife resources.
So, when he became county attorney in Sabine County in 1999, he wasn’t about to let poachers get off easy. Instead, Neal takes game violations just as seriously as any other crime — one reason why the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department honored him with its inaugural Prosecutor of the Year award in 2018.
“A lot of people don’t think it [poaching] is as important, but they probably would if they really thought about it — those turkey and deer were restocked with taxpayer funds,” says Neal, noting that some common game violations — hunting at night or hunting from a public road — also threaten public safety.
Col. Grahame Jones, who directs the Law Enforcement Division of TPWD, says that Neal is a tremendous support to his local game wardens.
“Successful prosecution sends a strong message to the violators and acts as a future deterrent for others who are considering violating the law,” Jones says.
That deterrent effect doesn’t work as well if judges and prosecutors don’t take game violations seriously. Wildlife protection officials across the country, including Texas, told researchers for a 2017 report that the court system can be the largest obstacle to successful poaching prosecutions.
Why? The system doesn’t make wildlife crimes a priority; courts don’t consistently impose fines; and sometimes judges dismiss cases. Judges may lack understanding of game laws or hold cultural, traditional or personal beliefs that lead to weak prosecution.
Neal stands out compared to other prosecutors, says Tom Jenkins, who was a game warden captain in Sabine County for 26 years before retiring in August 2018. For years, Neal and his father have hunted at and maintained a large Sabine County deer lease that boasts an impressive population of Eastern turkey, a species that’s had a hard time in other areas.
Because Neal knows the importance of proper wildlife management, poaching feels personal to him, says Jenkins, who nominated Neal for the TPWD prosecutor award.
“In Bobby’s mind, you’re stealing from me and the public. It’s just like someone is breaking in a house and stealing stuff,” he says.
Neal earned his high school diploma from West Sabine High School in Pineland. After graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University, he worked as an accountant, which put him in touch with lawyers, planting his interest in the law. He earned his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston in 1995 and started his legal career in private practice. Sabine County officials appointed him to become the county attorney in 1999, representing the county in civil matters and prosecuting Class A and B misdemeanors.
Although Neal was humbled by and appreciative of TPWD’s prosecutor award, he says he didn’t like being singled out for the honor because he acts as part of a team. A typical game violation case starts with a citizen who calls a game warden about a crime. The game warden investigates and puts together a case — it takes hard work in tough conditions, often at night, and incorporates modern techniques such as DNA or ballistics testing. When the case arrives in Neal’s office, his staff helps usher it through the court process. Local judges have taken these cases seriously.
“Everybody working together is the only time you have exceptional results,” he says.
A game warden might go easy on a hunter who makes an honest mistake — for example, taking a buck with a 12-inch spread when the legal minimum is 13 inches. Neal doesn’t see those cases. Rather, he says, his defendants are accused of egregious things like killing four deer and cutting off their antlers, harvesting just one backstrap and leaving the rest to waste.
Poaching is a seasonal crime, with most cases occurring between September and January, coinciding with deer season. Half of his cases involve Sabine County defendants; half are visitors drawn to hunt in the region’s vast national forests. Although Neal has prosecuted cases against women, he says the majority of defendants are men between the ages of 18 and 30.
“I think a lot of it is [due to their] youth,” he says, “and lack of appreciation for what they are doing.”
Most game violations are misdemeanors. Justices of the peace handle the lowest level, Class C, while Neal’s office tackles the higher Class A and B misdemeanors. Depending on the classification, a defendant could face a $2,000 to $4,000 fine and between 180 days and one year in jail. Class A or B violations can also bring two years of probation, pricey court costs and probation fees, the suspension of hunting and fishing licenses, seizure of the firearm used in the crime and payment of civil restitution.
Jenkins, the longtime game warden, says that before Neal’s tenure as county attorney, Sabine County poachers viewed getting hit with a game violation as a joke because they might get only a $25 fine.
“Bobby’s getting $3,000 to $4,000 fines. He’s collecting restitution on the animals,” Jenkins says. “On people who are habitual outlaws, he’s following through on the letter of the law.”
In one case, a defendant was convicted for shooting a turkey hen from a public road out of season. The defendant’s sentence included 155 days in jail, one year of probation, 40 hours of community service, a $1,500 fine, more than $1,800 in court costs and fees, a two-year license suspension, weapon forfeiture and $1,000 in restitution.
Viron Barbay, the president of the Sabine County Landowners and Leaseholders Association, a local group that pushes for conservation education and opposes poaching, says game violators in the region used to be “blatant outlaws.”
“There was a culture of poaching,” says Barbay, a longtime Milam resident.
But Neal’s commitment to prosecuting poachers has sent a message: Poach in Sabine County and face serious consequences. Barbay says it’s deeply significant that the first TPWD Prosecutor of the Year award honored someone in East Texas.
“We see it as deep East Texas winning the award,” Barbay says. “The people here are very proud of what he’s done.”
Angela Morris is a multimedia journalist who covers the legal profession. A new TPWD Prosecutor of the Year will be named in August.
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