State Supreme Court hears CO livewell-search case

Associated Press

St. Paul A case that tests the limits on boat searches by
conservation officers drew the state Supreme Court into a debate
Monday over the value Minnesotans place on protecting natural
resources versus their expectation of privacy.

Justices heard the case of John Colosimo, a lawyer from
Virginia, Minn., who wouldn’t let a game warden inspect his boat on
a portage between two lakes in northern Minnesota. Colosimo was
convicted for refusing an inspection, but it was overturned last
summer by the Court of Appeals.

On one side, assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jeff Vlatkovich
argued that conservation officers would be hamstrung if they needed
to establish probable cause of a violation before a “limited
inspection” of fishing boats. He leaned on Minnesota’s
constitutional mention of managing and preserving game and
fish.

With 2.1 million anglers and fewer than 200 officers in the
state, he said, “it’s the only way to enforce game and fish
laws.”

On the other side, Colosimo warned that allowing officers to act
without some evidence of wrongdoing would infringe on the Fourth
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guards against
unreasonable search and seizure.

“This is not about fish and game,” Colosimo said. “This is about
individual rights.”

In the middle were the justices, whose decision in a few months
could define the balance. As usual, they didn’t tip their
hands.

Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz said the argument for individual
rights was “very attractive,” but she also expressed concern about
making a “mockery” of game and fish laws by making them next to
impossible to enforce.

The case is made even more difficult by the fact that Colosimo
and four friends weren’t in the act of fishing or in the water when
the officer approached and eventually asked to search the boat.

Colosimo said he doesn’t mind showing game wardens his license
while he’s fishing. He objects to letting them look in a livewell
or another part of the boat not in plain sight without consent or
probable cause of a crime.

“A `limited’ search is a subjective thing,” he said. “There has
to be objective standards.”

Vlatkovich said hunting and fishing is a regulated activity and
a privilege.

“The intrusion is minimal,” Vlatkovich said. He added later,
“I’m not talking about going in glove compartments; I’m not talking
about tearing apart suitcases.”

The inspections, he said, are limited to areas where caught fish
are generally held.

At least one justice sounded skeptical.

“There’s a difference between saying May I please see your
catch’ and May I search your boat,” said Justice Helen Meyer.

The case has parallels to one the Supreme Court decided last
year. In August, the court ruled that conservation officers need
permission or a warrant to enter ice-fishing houses to check for
violations.

As that case moved through the courts and word about it spread,
DNR conservation officers noticed more anglers refusing spot
checks.

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