Law Enforcement

Timber Transaction Crime

Timber transaction crime includes outright theft of forest products, as well as fraud. Fraud in this context includes Obtaining Property Under False Pretenses, Breach of Trust with Fraudulent Intent , Swindling , and Exploitation of a Vulnerable Adult . Frequently associated crimes include Trespassing, Malicious Injury to Real Property, and Conspiracy.

Two laws pertaining to timber transactions were passed in 2002. One requires timber buyers to provide the landowner with accurate mill receipts for wood purchased on a pay-as-cut basis. The other allows law enforcement to confiscate any tools or equipment used in commission of certain timber transaction crimes.

Measuring stump

In 2004, another law was passed requiring timber buyers to pay landowners within 45 days for timber purchased on a pay-as-cut basis.

According to Forestry Commission records, almost half of all timber transaction crime victims are 55 years old or older. Investigators think this may be because older people, regardless of sex or race, tend to be more trusting. About 40 % are black, perhaps because blacks southwide are much less likely to seek professional assistance when selling their timber. About 40% of all victims are female, with elderly widows frequently targeted.

Investigations usually begin with a complaint from a landowner. Some complaints turn out to be civil matters: misunderstandings, slow payment, damaged property, failure to fulfill certain parts of a contract, and accidental trespass. While the Forestry Commission does not handle civil cases, investigators are sometimes able to facilitate a satisfactory settlement by simply talking to the people involved.

If the preliminary inquiry indicates that a crime may have been committed, investigators begin to follow the paper trail that is inevitably generated by a financial transaction. It is usually the paper trail that leads to the culprit.

Depending on the situation, up to five principals may be involved in any suspect deal: the landowner, the wood buyer, the logger, the wood dealer (broker), and the mill. Each of these generates or receives paper documentation at various points in the transaction, and each piece of paper is part of the puzzle investigators seek to assemble.

Investigators must gather and examine the various pieces of documentary evidence in an attempt to develop a clear picture of the transaction. Some pieces of evidence are available simply for the asking; others may require a subpoena or a search warrant; some may no longer exist; and some, like contracts and timber deeds, may never have existed at all.

In addition to gathering documentary evidence, investigators interview anyone who may have information pertinent to the case. Their statements and depositions frequently fill gaps in the paper trail or lead to new sources of information.

Investigation of timber cases is a painstaking process which may take many months to complete. Complicating the process is the sensitivity of the issues involved. Investigators say that inquiries must be handled carefully and confidentially to avoid hurting the reputations of innocent parties involved in the inquiry.

If evidence confirms that a crime has been committed, investigators must link the crime to the person responsible. This step is called "establishing probable cause." It simply means that the officer must have a reasonable belief, based on facts and evidence, that the suspect person actually committed the crime.

Usually investigators will discuss the case with the solicitor before they apply for an arrest warrant. If the solicitor agrees that the case is worth pursuing, officers will prepare an affidavit that outlines their probable cause. This is presented to a magistrate with a request to issue an arrest warrant.

Once a warrant is issued, a timber transaction arrest is treated like any other arrest. Officers locate the subject, who is then handcuffed, taken to jail, booked, and given a bond hearing.

Information regarding any timber transaction arrest, including a photo of the accused, is then released to the news media.


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