Crown prosecutor recognized for Tamarack cases
by Richard Servetnyk

There is no mistaking the bold and blaring tones of the music score for television's Law and Order. The record-breaking drama series, created by Dick Wolf, is in its 13th year and due to public support has expanded to include two additional specialized crime investigation scenarios.

The popularity and success of the program is largely due to the seemingly realistic perspective provided by the writers and producers. The recurrent theme of the series is narrated at the start of each episode:

"In the criminal justice system the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. Here are their stories'"

Fish and Wildlife officers investigate crimes against Alberta 's wildlife and fishery resources every day. The investigating officer is charged with the responsibility of responding to calls, gathering evidence and identifying the violator. Some cases may be simple, but many become challenging and complex. While collected evidence factors heavily in the success or failure of a case the matter is far from over even when charges against a suspect are laid.

When cases go to court the burden of proving guilt shifts to the Crown prosecutor. Through an often arduous process the prosecutor must in a compelling manner present the case to the court and defence counsel. Complex legal issues and precedents are often debated and argued even before evidence is presented at trial. The prosecutor must be prepared to tackle the toughest cases and the trickiest defence strategies.

While convicting violators is clearly a tag team or relay effort the public largely views a successful prosecution as a police victory. If the case fails the perception is often that the system or the prosecutor failed.

It is therefore a pleasure to advise our readers of an occasion in which the actions of a prosecutor have been formally recognized. In June of this year, Debra Anne Drissell, acting Chief Crown Prosecutor for Vegreville/St. Paul, was the recipient of the Alberta Justice Minister's Award for Excellence. This prestigious award was presented to Drissell to recognize her exceptional performance and efforts associated with 'Operation Tamarack'.

Operation Tamarack was a much-acclaimed long-term undercover investigation conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Division between 1999 and 2001. Prosecution activities concluded in May 2002 (A feature article appeared in the Fall 2002 edition of the Alberta Game Warden)

Fish and Wildlife officers that have worked with Ms. Drissell clearly understand how deserving she is of this award. The fact that a Justice Department award stemmed from a wildlife case is very significant to all officers. It is also significant to note that a peer and supervisor within the Justice Department nominated Drissell for this award. The following are excerpts from the written nomination submission:

Ms. Drissell was assigned as a dedicated prosecutor to handle Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division's 'Operation Tamarack'. This operation began in relation to 92 complaints of illegal hunting and the sale of big game and fish in the Fort McMurray area.

The Fish and Wildlife Division conducted a massive undercover operation and required a prosecutor to quarterback the legal issues at the conclusion of the operation. Ms. Drissell did an excellent job in handling this.

She met with investigators and examined the boxes of documents to determine the appropriate charges. She then prosecuted all of these cases throughout northern Alberta . She handled this assignment by herself with no additional prosecution resources.

The results were an outstanding success. Twenty-seven accused persons entered guilty pleas to 106 charges. A total of $254,820 in fines were assessed as well as 9 2/3 years of jail time, 69 years of (hunting) licence suspensions and 12 special orders under the Wildlife Act.

These successful prosecutions did not go unnoticed. It received front-page favourable coverage in the Edmonton Journal. The cases were featured in a recent edition of the Alberta Game Warden magazine. Furthermore, investigators at Fish and Wildlife reported on these significant penalties É as a major victory against commercial poachers. The [case sent a] message to would be traffickers. "No where else in Canada has this message ever been so clearly delivered. This operation resulted in individual and global penalties that are precedent setting in Canadian resource law enforcement."

Ms. Drissell did an outstanding job in handling this difficult complex prosecution. The outstanding results yielded Alberta Justice favourable media coverage and a great deal of good will.

Justice Minister Dave Hancock and other high-ranking Justice Department officials presented the award to Drissell at a June 5, 2003, ceremony at Government House in Edmonton .

Drissell has always been a strong advocate for wildlife, fish and nature in general. She has extensive experience in prosecuting Fish and Wildlife cases and has been very successful in those endeavours. At the award ceremony, Deputy Justice Minister Terry Matchett did not miss that point.

In his closing remarks the Deputy Minister said, "Congratulations. Your high profile work with Fish and Wildlife cases brings credit to the prosecution services in the important goal of protection of the environment. Your dedication, professionalism and plain hard work in handling this complex prosecution yielded Alberta Justice favourable media coverage and was recognized by Fish and Wildlife and the general community. Thank you once again for your outstanding job".

Unlike screenwriters, prosecutors don't set out to win awards. The work of Drissell and other prosecutors in handling natural resource cases should not go unnoticed. Clearly a team effort is required to protect our resources and to serve appropriate penalties to violators.

Richard Servetnyk is a member of the Alberta Game Warden Association in Edmonton.