The big fish
Longtime activist Don Bird sues Tehama County for $700,000
Last August, Rancho Tehama political provocateur Don Bird defiantly cast his line into the waters of the Sacramento River below the Red Bluff Diversion Dam, hoping to hook a ticket for fishing without a license.
Now Bird is looking to fry bigger fish—namely Tehama County, the state of California and Tehama County Counsel Arthur Wylene, against whom he recently filed a federal lawsuit demanding $700,000 in damages for infringing upon his constitutional rights.
The complaint, filed Dec. 10 in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, addresses “The Denial of the 5th, 6th and 7th Amendments of the Plaintiff’s Constitutional Rights to a Jury for an ‘Infraction.’” The 19-page document, which is light on legalese and written largely in Bird’s straightforward and markedly ornery vernacular, outlines what Bird sees as a series of actions perpetrated by the named entities that he believes are attacks on his and others’ civil liberties.
Bird’s initial fishing excursion was to protest the need for fishing licenses, which Bird said infringes on Article I, Sec. 25, of the U.S. Constitution. He fought the fine in court, pleading “innocent” at a Sept. 23 arraignment and demanding a jury trial (“I like those odds better,” he quipped prior to appearing before the judge), only to be informed that jury trials are not granted for infractions.
This caused Bird to rail against the existence of “infractions,” which he said were a creation of California’s legal system, established in 1969 to deny citizens their right to a jury trial. The federal complaint expands on this idea and includes an essay from Ron Branson, founder of a website called Jail 4 Judges that criticizes the legal system.
On Oct. 16, Bird appeared before Tehama County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Skillman, again asserting his right to a jury trial and telling the judge that he wouldn’t pay the $460 fishing fine. Skillman informed him the ticket would go to collections, incurring an additional $300 fee.
Bird claims a “ghost attorney” worked pro bono to help prepare the latest complaint and will continue to advise him through further actions. But Bird plans to represent himself if the case continues into a courtroom.
However, Wylene, the Tehama County counselor named in Bird’s complaint, said it’s unlikely the case will be heard in court.
“Obviously, I can’t comment too much about pending litigation, but I can say the federal magistrate judge issued a formal recommendation that his case be dismissed as frivolous on Jan. 9,” said Wylene, explaining that all cases in which the filing fees are requested waived—as Bird’s was—must first face scrutiny to see if they have legal merit.
“That will now go to the district judge, and I strongly suspect it will be approved and signed. I do not believe there’s any merit to Mr. Bird’s case,” he said.
Wylene said that since the claim is still being scrutinized, his office has not been served with the complaint yet, and he doesn’t believe it will.
Bird anticipated this would happen, even addressing it in his complaint: “This plaintiff concludes with a simple request,” it reads. “When the defendants reply, be creative with reasons to dismiss. Not the standard response.”
In multiple phone and in-person interviews, Bird said he will appeal any dismissal and continue to fight for as long as he can.
In a sense, even filing the case was a victory for Bird. He previously has sued judges, local politicians, and county and state officials, filing 15 cases against five litigants in a seven-year period. These legal actions caused Tehama County Superior Court Judge C. Todd Bottke to have him declared a “vexatious litigant” in 2012.
This label disallows Bird from suing in state courts, but the series of events that began with casting his line into the river opened a loophole allowing him to sue at the federal level.
His former legal and political campaigns include another quest for a jury trial after a 2005 speeding ticket that brought him into direct conflict with then-Assemblyman (and now Congressman) Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale). He also accused state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) of carpetbagging, calling Nielsen out on the fact he claims residence in Gerber in order to serve in one district while actually living outside the area, in Woodland. Nielsen eventually had a restraining order placed on him after Bird—who is in his 70s—threatened to place Nielsen under citizen’s arrest.
“I don’t give a damn about the money—it’s the principle I care about,” Bird said of the $700,000 the suit demands—the total of $500,000 in punitive, $100,000 in nominal, and $50,000 each for discretionary and general damages. He also said he doesn’t believe the claim is excessive.
“You can’t put a price on my rights,” he said.
While some have praised Bird’s efforts, others have accused him of placing unnecessary burdens on the legal system and costing the taxpayers money.
“This isn’t my fault—it’s theirs,” said Bird, addressing his detractors. “If that judge would have done the right thing and upheld his oath to the Constitution and found me innocent or given me a jury trial, then it would never have come to this.”
Bird’s ongoing campaigns over perceived infringements on his rights have gained him a great deal of notoriety over the years, with one letter writer to the Red Bluff Daily News last September labeling him “Don Quixote” Bird, after the literary character famous for “tilting at windmills,” or embarking on flights of fancy in an effort to keep chivalry alive.
Bird likens himself more to Samuel Adams than Quixote, and has been dressing as the Founding Father while speaking to media about his latest campaign, which he swears will be his last.
“Win or lose, this is it for me.”