Jan 12, 2014

Snake-handler avoids charges, Tenn. avoids First Amendment fight

The law is pretty clear about poisonous snakes in Tennessee.

It's not legal to "display, exhibit, handle, or use a poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such manner as to endanger the life or health of any person." This means handling snakes as an act of worship is strictly forbidden. In fact, even owning poisonous snakes that could be displayed, exhibited, or handled in a religious exercise is illegal. Tennessee law prohibits possession of "Class I wildlife," which includes "all poisonous snakes" along with rhinos, hippos, alligators, baboons, and lions.

Possessing a poisonous snake in Tennessee is punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Nevertheless, a Tennessee grand jury has decided not to indict Andrew Hamblin on charges of snake possession. Hamblin, 22, is pastor of a snake-handling pentecostal church in East Tennessee, and is now widely known as a snake handler because of his openness and eagerness to share his faith with the media. Last November, after Hamblin and his church were featured on a reality show called "Snake Salvation," the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided his church and seized 53 poisonous snakes.

By his own account, Hamblin was the only one with the keys to the locked room of the church where the snakes were kept. By his account, too, they were being kept for the purposes of handling in church.

The grand jury dropped the case against Hamblin anyway.

The bar for a grand jury indictment is very, very low. An indictment, or "true bill," isn't a finding of guilt, but only a finding of cause for the charges.  The jury could have indicted him on the publicly available evidence. The law's pretty clear; the facts are pretty clear. But the grand jury in this case chose to go another way.

One can only speculate, but it would appear that the district attorney decided a long legal battle over the constitutionality of the state's snake-handling and -possession bans just wasn't worth it.

Prosecutor Lori Phillips-Jones allowed Hamblin to address the grand jury as they deliberated on whether or not to bring an indictment, which is very unusual. Hamblin's defense was that he wasn't in possession of the snakes because they didn't belong to him, they belonged to the church. He was taking care of them, though. His definition of possession is likely more nuanced than the state law's. If the prosecutors had decided to go after the church, however, or after Hamblin as a snake-handling pastor rather than Hamblin as a private citizen, that would have made it a battle over the right to handle snakes as a religious practice.

That was a fight Hamblin was willing to have, to defend the religious exercise of snake handling.

The sate, on the other hand, seemed interested in avoiding that particular legal issue. There's some disagreement among religious and legal scholars as to the constitutionality of these bans, but there is no question a good case can be made for the snake handlers. The law could be overturned in court, and if Hamblin got enough financial and legal support, the battle could have gone on for years.

Prosecutor Lori Phillips-Jones has maintained the case against Hamblin wasn't about First Amendment freedom. She has also defended the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency's raid. At the same time, the district attorney has said she respected the grand jury's decision, and indicated she'll not bring new charges, saying she would need "new evidence." This could be interpreted as signaling a lack of interest in taking up this case and fighting this fight, while not publicly dismissing current state law.

Hamblin's defense that the snake's weren't his gave the prosecutor and the grand jury a way out of a long legal battle over the first amendment rights of snake handlers. The state avoids the problem of the law, and Hamblin's out of trouble.

Everyone's happy, it would seem, except the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Knoxville Zoo, where the seized snakes are being kept. Officials for both groups have expressed concern about the health of the snakes, reporting that 21 of the 53 were ill and have died since November. They will not give the other snakes back to the church, either.

Hamblin, for his part, understands their position.

"They considered the snakes contraband," he told a TV local news station. "And rightly so. We're not worried about that."