The Minnesota Supreme Court today ruled that Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officers may search boats and live wells without probable cause.
The ruling reversed a lower court's decision that had prohibited them from conducting inspections of fish in angler's live wells.
"The Supreme Court carefully balanced privacy rights and resource conservation interests," said DNR Enforcement Director Mike Hamm, "and ruled in favor of limited inspections by conservation officers to help sustain our natural resources."
The DNR, along with angling and sporting groups, had been very concerned with a lower court decision that stated officers were required to have probable cause to inspect anglers' boats.
"This ruling will help Minnesota conservation officers, who have protected the State resource since 1887, preserve these resources for generations to come, " Hamm said.
Fishing plays an important role in the lives of many Minnesotans and the corresponding need for effective regulation to protect the viability of the state's fish and game resources was confirmed today by the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision on this matter, Hamm noted.
The decision does not grant conservation officers powers beyond that of other law enforcement officers. Instead, recognizes that fishing is largely a recreational privilege and those "who chose to apply for this privilege accept the conditions imposed to the sport of game fishing."
The ruling is consistent with other cases, including Montana's Boyer case in which the Montana Supreme Court ruled "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."
"The ruling recognizes how absurd it would be - because fishing can take hours or even days over broad areas - for conservations officers to individually watch every angler to determine if probable cause existed," Hamm said.
This case differs from State v. Larsen (in which the Minnesota Supreme Court prohibited the search of an ice fishing house without probable cause). The court's position is that fish shelters are erected to protect occupants from the elements and often provide eating, sleeping and other facilities that allow for a reasonable expectation of privacy. That's different from an open boat.