In 1967, riots broke out in Detroit when police raided an after-hours drinking club–a “blind pig.” Fires soon broke out everywhere, gunshots continually echoed through the city, and police from around the state, and troops from the National Guard and the 82nd Airborne Division were brought in to regain control of the city. At the conclusion of five days of rioting, 43 people were dead, 1,189 injured and over 7,000 people had been arrested.

As a Graduate Research Assistant at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, I was part of a team sponsored by the Kerner Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which was sent into the city to interview people to determine why the city had erupted into violence and what could be done to avert future riots. One of the common complaints we found was that there was little trust between the people and the police.

Two years later I was invited to work with Detroit Police Commissioner John Spreen on improving police-community relations. One of the recommendations made was getting officers out of their patrol cars and onto the street and interacting with people in ways that built trust. One tactic was to do patrols on bicycles. Police athletic league sports programs were set up. Another strategy was to train officers in environmental pollution control law so they could respond to complaints that otherwise would have been public health complaints, for frankly the public health department was reluctant to go into some areas that had the worst air pollution and trash removal problems.

An issue that was a hot button then, and still is today, is when does a police officer have the right to search someone and seize property? This, I learned, was determined by the Fourth Amendment, which states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

You probably have heard about search warrants and probable cause from watching crime procedurals on TV. Do you know how those laws apply to game wardens?

Twenty years later I was living in California, which incidentally has the best waterfowl hunting in the U.S. Up to three million ducks and almost a million geese winter in the rice fields and wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley every year. Most of the land, however, is private. Getting access to a place to hunt in the Sacramento Valley is the challenge, as the refuges are really the only affordable place to go for the average hunter. Access to the refuges is determined by reservations. If you don’t get drawn for one of the refuges, and your chances of doing so may be as great as one in a thousand or more depending on the day, you can always wait patiently in line (called the “sweat line”) at the check station, watching clouds of birds buzz by overhead and listening to the constant staccato of shotguns trying to bring them to earth.

On one December day I had waited in the sweat line until some hunters left the refuge and my number was called. I eagerly drove out into the marsh, parked, loaded up my marsh cart with decoys, pulled on my waders, and began walking as fast as I could for my assigned blind. As I was exiting the parking area, a game warden stepped out of his patrol truck, approached me, and asked to see my license. I had to show my license at the check stand to qualify for the draw, and I did, along with my driver’s license–which meant a check to be sure it really was my license. Then he asked to see my gun to check if there was a plug in my Remington 870 pump that limited me to three shells. Okay, I handed him my gun and I passed that test.

I was about to head out when he said, “I’d like to check your backpack to see if you have only 25 shells,” which if the maximum number you can carry into the field at the refuge. It is supposed to help discourage sky blasting.

Before I could say “yes,” he reached into my backpack was pawing around. Wouldn’t you know it, he found two extra shells from a previous hunt that had somehow got stuck under gear way in the bottom of the pack.

I quickly explained that I was a Hunter Education Instructor (I showed him my card), and certainly was not trying to break the law. He in turn, told me to take them back to my car, and I would not receive a citation, which I promptly did.

The whole search rattled me, and as I walked out into the marsh I began to realize that the search of my backpack and my shotgun had been performed without a search warrant, and come to think of it, I never did give him permission to search my backpack. According to what I had learned in my work with the Detroit Police Department, this had been an illegal search. And, as I had noted his name on his shirt, when I got back in, I called the Department of Fish and Game to lodge a complaint. If that warden had been a Detroit police officer, I knew he would have lost his badge.

I soon learned was a lesson that all hunters and anglers should be aware of. Because of the nature of the work of their work, which involves working alone in wild places far from towns, regularly performing compliance checks, and the difficulty in getting a search warrant in time to deal with every contact they make in the field, game wardens in most states have extended search and seizure powers.

Why do game wardens have more search powers? The reasoning goes like this. Fish and game are public property. Unless you have stocked a lake with your own fish, planted raised game birds, or have a fenced enclosure where you have deer, wild boar, or other game animals that you have raised for hunting, wild animals are governed by the state and federal government. So, if a game warden suspects that you may be hunting or fishing illegally, he or she can come onto your land and conduct an investigation and it’s not trespassing.

Compliance checks in the field also come with special powers. As you have supposedly purchased a license to hunt or fish legally, the warden can ask you to show that license, as well as accompanying identification. If you cannot prove who you are, you could be hunting or fishing with a fake license. And because you are supposed to follow the law, such as carrying no more than the limit of shells, or using barbless hooks and so on, you can legally be searched without a search warrant because of what is called “exigent circumstance.”

That wardens have extended search powers can be source of conflict if you don’t know this. A few years ago in Wisconsin, a Hunter Education Instructor who had been teaching for 14 years was found to be telling his students that wardens had no such special powers of search and seizure, and students should not hand over their firearms to wardens for inspection and they should order them off private property when they do not have a search warrant. When it was discovered what he was teaching, he was asked to stop teaching this and alert all his former students to this error. When he would not follow this directive, his Hunter Education credentials were revoked.

Wisconsin Hunter Education not only dismissed the instructor, but the state Hunter Education Administrator Timothy Lawhern followed up with a letter to all the instructors’ former students that informed them to always follow the commands of a law enforcement officer, no matter the circumstance and even if it meant giving the officer the firearm and not blocking them from entering private property without a search warrant or probable cause.

The incident made the national news as it spotlighted the fact that game wardens have search and seizure powers that no other law enforcement officers have.

I checked in with Timothy Lawhern in Wisconsin, who is not only a game warden, but also the former President of the International Hunter Education Association, and the administrator for Hunter Education for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. I asked Tim if anything had changed in the nearly four years since that incident. His reply was, “No change from how we have done business for many years. The issue in Wisconsin a few years ago came from a disgruntled dismissed Hunter Ed volunteer instructor. Bottom line is he was wrong.”

If you want to know what wardens can and can’t do in your state make sure you check, as unfortunately this is not always taught in Hunter Education classes, and there are no fisherman education classes. The law in Louisiana, for instance, states:

…any commissioned wildlife agent may visit, inspect, and examine, with or without [a] search warrant, records, any cold storage plant, warehouse, boat, store, car, conveyance, automobile or other vehicle, airplane or other aircraft, basket or other receptacle, or any place of deposit for wild birds, wild quadrupeds, fish or other aquatic life or any parts thereof whenever there is probable cause to believe that a violation has occurred. Commissioned wildlife agents are authorized to visit or inspect at frequent intervals without the need of search warrants, records, cold storage plants, bait stands, warehouses, public restaurants, public and private markets, stores, and places where wild birds, game quadrupeds, fish, or other aquatic life or any parts thereof may be kept and offered for sale, for the purpose of ascertaining whether any laws or regulations under the jurisdiction of the department have been violated…

So if you meet a game warden in the woods when you are hunting, what do you do if he asks to see your gun? Don’t start ejecting shells from the gun. It makes you look like you are trying to hide something, and it could even be dangerous. Ask what you should do. The warden should treat you courteously, but he or she has the right to search. Both parties should show each other proper respect and everything will unfold as quickly as possible.

And who knows, because the warden spends more time in the field than you probably do, he or she may have some tips about where you are most likely to be successful.

Images courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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14 thoughts on “Suppose You Meet a Game Warden in the Field…

  1. As stated in the article, the idea that any police officer would “lose his badge” simply over an illegal search proves that the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Cops REGULARLY make illegal searches, and they count on the fact that most people don’t know the law and allow them to search simply because they ask.

    Note also that, according to the excerpt from the Louisiana code, any search must proceed from a standpoint of PROBABLE CAUSE – and I imagine this is also true for other state codes. This is entirely different from the main thrust of the article that wardens can search you any time they want.

    The fact that people regularly give up their 4th amendment rights is precisely why police continue to keep violating your rights as if said rights didn’t even exist. Therefore, no, do not give up your rights when asked. Sure it makes life a teeny-tiny scrap more difficult for police, but that’s their problem for trying to get you to give up your rights under law. Do you think they care one jot if they make YOUR life difficult?

    A right not exercised, is a right YOU DON’T HAVE.

  2. I live in Alabama in Tallapoosa county, and while reading this article I got the feeling it was intended to put Game wardens in a bad light.
    I know that there are some jackasses out there wearing uniforms that do deserve some criticizem .
    We are fortunate to have a warden who is very helpful and even appears on our local tv station to explain the law and help people keep from getting in trouble.Although He will issue a citation if you get caught violating the law.
    When I was much younger we weren’t so lucky as we had a guy that would write citations for some stupid things. He was bad about writing citations that couldn’t stand in court.
    . He saw no problem with his actions although people often had to skip work to make the court appearance. This meant you were hit with a fine whether you had violated the law or not, thru loss of wages. Needless to say he was a very unpopular Game Warden both with the people and some judges.

    Don’t assume that your Warden is a bad person because he checks you gun and license, this is his job!

  3. While I agree with the cusp of the article that most don’t know the reach and scope of a conservation officer. You don’t always run into the nice ones either. I know people that have been drawn down on because the officers were over zealous. Happened twice that I know of. One was on a military base I hunt and the MPs acting as COs ordered my friends to lay down their shotguns. These are $3k shotguns and the MPs wanted them to lay them down in the muddy logging road. This was two older fellas in their 60s. Way over zealous actions for the situation.

    I always give a person as much respect as they give me. If they are polite and respectful I will reciprocate with great pleasure. However, if I am treated as a nuisance and harassed I will first ask they write down their badge number and full name and supervisors name and phone number. It has only happened once but they sure get nicer when you do that.

    With that said I have met many COs and have nothing but respect for the badge and the person. It’s a very demanding job and it can be dangerous.

  4. Someone please show me in the Fourth Amendment where ANY cop, game warden or not, has the “extended” right to perform an illegal search.

    1. Thank you Sir! no law enforcement has the right to supersede the bill of rights unless congress has passed another amendment suppressing the 4th amendment and their by re-authoring the bill of rights of the constitution.

    2. I agree. I would ask the author where the game wardens authority comes from? The US constitution says all searches require an order signed by a judge who has heard or rea affirmation from a witness f the property/person to be searched. There is no reasonable grounds to allow a game agent to operate outside of the United States Constitution’s restrictions.

  5. Mr. Swan,

    Thanks for your work in the outdoor community. I generally agree with much of the information you present in your articles. I don’t support the laws and law enforcement on the issues presented in this article due to civil liberties. Law enforcement wantonly searching folks property and person. Simply put….outrageous. Lets examine CA game wardens for example. They have the lowest game warden staffing in the nation. In hopes of compensating for low man-power they trample the Constitution in hopes of upholding the law. Yes, the searches mentioned in the article have been upheld by the courts. In addition roadside checkpoints by game wardens have been upheld also. I ponder a question. Mr Swan describes wonderfully in his article much of the “red tape” involved in hunting these days plus the expenses of fuel, food, training hunting dogs etc. My question: Does the “red tape” plus the game warden searches alienate hunters to the point they give up on the sport of hunting? Hunting faces many challenges: lost hunting lands due to development, armed criminals growing drugs on public lands, lack of recruitment for new hunters plus many hunters simply leaving the sport because they are too old and did I mention “RED TAPE”. Sadly, game wardens are doing more harm than good in this situation. The wardens are even begging for money in the form of “Warden Stamps” for five dollars. Who do they think will donate money to the warden stamps? Maybe the lawful hunter whom the warden roughly searched? The whole conservation department in CA is in a downward spiral in my opinion. I am a young hunter in my twenties. I love outdoor recreation but not at the expense of any of my civil liberties. I respectfully argue the Constitution applies even when hunting and fishing. I choose my civil rights over my beloved sport of hunting. Sportsmen can choose to speak with their wallets and not buy hunting/fishing license and the items that support the wildlife department. We understand this will impact the sport and wildlife. On the other hand we should not give up any of our liberties. I will end by saying I truly respect Mr. Swan but would rather quit the outdoors than deal with the hassles he described above.

  6. My experience with Idaho Fish and Game has been terrible. They tend to bully and harass sportsmen. They try to intimidate hunters by continually calling them liars. Believe me. I’ve experienced it myself and have talked to many, many people who share this opinion. It’s going the wrong way in this state.
    Idaho Fish and Game is not funded by regular tax dollars. They are funded by license fees, a tax on sporting goods and FINES. That’s right they are highly motivated to fine the hunter and do in fact rely on the hunters’ lack of knowledge of the laws.
    My advice: Hunter elsewhere. They depend on out of state dollars. Hopefully they’ll realize that they are chasing people away from this great state.

    1. You’d think that the Idaho game wardens would’ve learned their lesson about being rude and over-bearing…after what happened to 2 of their guys back in 1981 in Owyhee County. A trapper named Claude Dallas had been mis-treated in the past by government agents and police and when pushed too hard by one of the wardens, he pushed back…HARD! Dallas killed both wardens with shots to the head after they were down on the ground from the initial gunfire from the mountain man’s hidden handgun. (I am in no way glorifying or agree with what he did) After all was said and done, Dallas was sentenced to 30 yrs. for MANSLAUGHTER, and was released after good time credit of 22 years in 2005. This incident HAS to be on the mind of every Idaho warden whenever he makes contact with anyone in the back country. Anyway, I always thought that the Idaho guys might tread a little lighter than others because of the history. I guess not.

  7. All these fishing laws/regulation are made up from state constitutions,Show me where it proves the constitutions of any state apply to anyone.No one even signed the constitutions 230 years or so ago! I have found in the history books,That king george relinquished all his rights to ALL people.So go fishing!!!!

  8. I live in Haverhill mass and I was fishing for trout with my 14 yr old son and nephew and I was approached by a game worden and asked for my license and I had it and asked my son his age not once but three times and was very rude , then he turns to me and asked if I was smoking pot , I said no with surprise of that kind a question he asked , I’m 50 with my kid and nephew and they are really good kids that are very against drugs and alcohol ,then he asked me again if I was smoking pot , now I’m not very happy thinking and can’t believe this classless guy is asking me this again and I said no I’m not doing drugs with my kids ,he said don’t give me attitude and walked us to my silverado for my driving license, we’ll he said we can go and he’s has not heard the last of me , a call to his boss will be done on Monday ,overall they day was fun , we caught 9 big rainbows and cooked them on the grill , but that guy ruined my Easter weekend because I keep thinking of the way he treated us,I’m an avid hunter , fisherman and snowmobiler, I’m sure our tracks will meet again . Hey game wordens try this, “Hey guys nice day isn’t it, you mind me checking your fish and license ,ok thanks guys have fun”

  9. i met g w Erik Fleet in ca he is a real moron. he told me i needed a disabled hunting license for disabled archer permit to be valid. in ca there is no disabled hunting license!! i will never buy another hunting or fishing license again, does not mean i wont hunt anymore i have friends on indian reservations on palomar mountain!! game wardens do not go onto reservations the dont like getting shot at

  10. I’m not a big fan of any government agent having the amount of power that some game wardens do.I’m trying to find out how much power Kentucky game wardens have. I’ve always heard that a game wardens power is pretty much unlimited. Seems to me that could lead to abuse. Thankfully I’ve not ever had any trouble with one.The few times I’ve had one even check my license they were courteous about it. So I got no personal issues with any of them. Its just that unlimited legal power being held by anybody makes me uncomfortable in general.

  11. The problem is the 4th amendment overrides any such powers. Just because they have been given the authority in a law does not make it constitutional or right. If it is accepted that “oh well it’s in the law” then any and all 4th amendment violations are on the table.

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