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Paynesville Press - October 1, 2003

Court rules that DNR may search open boats

Conservation officers may legally search boats and live wells without probable cause, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled last week.

The ruling reversed a decision from a lower court that had prohibited the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from conducting inspections of fish in angler's live wells.

"The Supreme Court carefully balanced privacy rights and resource conservation interests," said Mike Hamm, DNR enforcement director, "and ruled in favor of limited inspection by conservation officers to help sustain our natural resources."

The DNR, along with angling and sporting groups, had been very concerned that the lower court decision would have hurt the DNR's ability to regulate fishing limits. "This ruling will help Minnesota conservation officers - who have protected the state resource since 1887 - preserve these resources for generations to come," said Hamm.

The decision enables the DNR to provide effective regulation to protect the viability of the state's fish and games resources, added Hamm.

The ruling recognizes that fishing is largely a recreational privilege and those "who choose to apply for this privilege accept the conditions imposed to the sport of game fishing."

The ruling is also consistent with other cases, including a case in Montana where the Montana Supreme Court ruled that "no objectively reasonable expectation of privacy exists when a wildlife enforcement officer checks for hunting and fishing licenses in open season near game habitat, inquires about game taken, and requests to inspect game in the field."

Added Hamm, "The ruling recognizes how absurd it would be - because fishing can take hours or even days over broad areas - for conservation officers to individually watch every angler to determine if probable cause existed."

The ruling differed from another Minnesota Supreme Court ruling about fish houses, where the court ruled that these shelters offer protection from the elements and places to eat and sleep. The court ruled that people can reasonably expect to have privacy in a fish house.

But not in an open boat.

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