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April 8, 2011
Court reverses conviction in sale of bear gallbladders
Special to the Journal

How much would you pay for a black bear gallbladder?

For purposes of this question, please assume the gallbladder is in reasonably good condition.

Okay, time is up. If you answered, “I would never pay any amount for a black bear gallbladder because it's against the law to buy them,” then you saw through my trick question and get to go directly to the head of the class. It also might mean you read the opinion in a recent Washington case called State v. Yon.

On Sept. 21, 2008, Jason Yon bought two black bear gallbladders for $400. Fifteen days later, he bought two more gallbladders for the same price. (Sorry, the court's opinion nowhere says whether Yon purchased the organs from an undercover officer, or furnishes any other details of the transactions.)

Yon was later charged in Spokane County Superior Court with two counts of first degree wildlife trafficking. After he pled not guilty, his case was set for trial.

Time for a short primer on Washington's wildlife trafficking laws, which prohibit any sale or purchase of fish, shellfish or wildlife that isn't authorized by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

According to the principal statute, a person commits a crime by unlawfully trafficking in wildlife. “Wildlife” includes the body parts of big game animals like black bears, while “trafficking” includes selling or buying such contraband.

The degree of the offense is determined by the wholesale value of the wildlife. If $250 or more, then a first degree offense has been committed. All others — i.e., those where the wholesale value is under $250 — become a second degree offense.

After the prosecution rested its case, Yon moved to dismiss the charges.

On what basis? That the value of the gallbladders couldn't be “aggregated” to reach the $250 threshold required by the statute. He also argued that according to a different statute, each purchased gallbladder had to be charged separately.

In more simple terms, Yon essentially contended that instead of being charged with two offenses in the first degree (each totaling $400), he should've been charged with four offenses in the second degree (each less than $250).

So why all the hubbub? Because first degree wildlife trafficking is a class C felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, while second degree is a gross misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Relying on a federal case cited by the state, the trial court denied Yon's motion to dismiss, instead ruling that the value of the black bear gallbladders could be aggregated. After a Spokane County jury convicted him as charged in December 2009, the defendant appealed.

So are you rooting for Yon, thinking things must really be slow in Spokane County if people are being prosecuted for buying dead animal parts? If so, you'll be happy to hear that his felony convictions were recently reversed.

The appeals court's reasoning was easy to follow.

Remember the different statute that I mentioned that says each piece of contraband should be counted as a separate offense for purposes of the wildlife trafficking laws? According to the state, this provision only applies when the defendant is charged with “taking or possessing big game.” It therefore had no application to Yon's case, the state claimed, because he had only been charged with buying big game body parts.

But by a 3-0 margin, the appeals court disagreed.

Sometimes the actual words are better than a paraphrase.

“The fact that the contraband in this case consisted of parts of big game animals rather than the animals in their intact condition is of no import,” said the court. To distinguish the wildlife trafficking statute on this point, the court continued, would “lead to absurd results” and be “inconsistent with the overall statutory scheme.” As a consequence, the court reversed Yon's felony convictions and returned his case to the lower court for resentencing as gross misdemeanors.

But the appeals court left one question unanswered: Why would anyone sell or buy black bear gallbladders? Here, Google quickly comes to the rescue, as you'll get numerous hits if you search “bear gallbladders.”

Turns out there is a substantial black market for ursine body parts in Asia because of their medicinal value. One article even likened the bear to a “walking drugstore” for purposes of traditional Chinese medicine.

The “most coveted” part, according to the article, is the bile within the gallbladder, which “gram for gram can exceed the cost of narcotics.” Amazingly, while the domestic price for an intact bear gallbladder is only several hundred dollars, it can reportedly fetch up to 30 times that amount in other countries.

So if you do the math, this means Yon's $800 investment in black bear gallbladders was potentially worth $24,000, which isn't exactly chump change.

Given this extra info, maybe things aren't really so slow in Spokane County. After all, wouldn't we much rather have a bear market for black bear body parts? If that means more people get prosecuted for unlawful wildlife trafficking, then so be it.