Heavy fines and a prison sentence came down on one Michigan man in a deer poaching case.
A Michigan man has received a prison sentence in connection with a major deer poaching case that happened last fall in Van Buren County.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced 33-year-old Justin Ernst of Decatur pleaded guilty to three counts of illegal take of whitetail deer, one count of obtaining a hunting license when ineligible, and one count of felon in possession of a firearm. Ernst took a plea deal in which the Van Buren County 36th Circuit Court ordered him to pay $25,000 in restitution for the deer killed. He will also serve between 18 months and five years behind bars.
Additionally, Ernst forfeited all items seized in the case, which included multiple shotguns and a crossbow. He also lost all hunting privileges for life in Michigan. He had previously been convicted of poaching in 2018, and also had felony charges for possession of methamphetamine or ecstasy on his record.
The case goes back to October of 2021 when State Police investigated Ernst for a domestic violence complaint. Officers noticed several dead deer in a barn frequented by Ernst and called in the DNR. Responding conservation officers found five 10-point and three 8-point bucks hanging inside.
The owner of the barn believed Ernst to be under the influence of methamphetamine and told officers the poacher frequently stayed out all night with a new buck appearing in the barn almost every morning. He allegedly drove through fields spotlighting and then shooting the deer.
Ernst was unable to be found when the DNR investigated, but he was later arrested on the domestic violence charge and taken to Van Buren County Jail. There officers interviewed Ernst, who then denied all allegations of poaching.
Officers obtained a search warrant and located the two shotguns, a crossbow with a bloody bolt, and a spotlight from Ernst's vehicle. The investigators were also clued into another buck that had been left in the barn since their initial investigation, a 9-pointer.
The DNR initially charged him with nine counts of illegally taking big game, one count of hunting with a revoked license, and one count of applying for or obtaining a hunting license while ineligible. Initially, Ernst was looking at $59,500 in possible fines until the plea deal. It seems clear the DNR wants to make an example of this case as a deterrent to other would-be poachers.
"We're satisfied that this criminal will be imprisoned for robbing ethical hunters, damaging crops and endangering others by recklessly driving through fields and shooting deer at night," Michigan DNR Assistant Chief David Shaw said in a press release. "We hope this serious sentence serves its intended purpose and are grateful for the strong message rendered by the 36th Circuit Court."
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