Boarded by the DNR

by | May 22, 2020 | Criminal Defense, DNR

By: Matthew Dearth

Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and many of those lakes are open to sport fishing and recreational boating activities. As with all outdoor activities, state and local regulations exist to ensure the health and safety of individuals, communities, and the environment.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is one government agency entrusted with the authority to enforce some of these regulations, including but not limited to hunting and fishing laws. The DNR Game and Fish Officers are often seen patrolling the backwoods game trails and inland waterways of Minnesota, checking for permits and inspecting watercraft and personal vehicles for compliance with the yearly catch and tag limits.

However, concerns inevitably arise for Minnesota fisherman when the DNR officer who just looked at their fishing licenses then proceeds to ask to board their boat and conduct an inspection of their live wells or bait buckets, presumably to make sure the fishing regulations are being followed. The prospect of an armed DNR officer looking through their boat, or even the trunk of their car, understandably makes some sportsmen uncomfortable, even if they are doing nothing wrong in the eyes of the law.

In a surprising and narrow decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently held that the DNR has the authority to conduct warrantless inspections of certain parts of open boats that would be used to store fish, because a fisherman does not have reasonable expectation of privacy in those areas when fishing. The rationale behind the authority is that because hunting and fishing are highly regulated activities for which the government grants a license holder a “privilege” to perform (as opposed to a “right”), a person’s expectation of privacy while in a public place performing that activity is reduced, at least as applied to a boat or motor vehicle. According to the Court, DNR officers do not need probable cause that a violation has occurred.

Keep in mind that refusing to allow the search of your boat or vehicle while hunting or fishing is not a good idea. It is a crime in Minnesota to refuse a DNR officer’s lawful request to inspect a person’s boat under these circumstances. The Minnesota Supreme Court has upheld the refusal law as a legitimate statutory scheme to give conservation officers the ability to more efficiently enforce the regulations without actual knowledge of a violation.

When hunting or fishing, be sure you know the state and local regulations in your area. If you are cited for a violation of game and fish laws, be sure to contact your attorney right away.

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