Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Pa. Supreme Court to hear hunter case

By Michael Rubinkam Associated Press Writer

Harrisburg — Joseph Russo Jr. had “No Trespassing” signs posted
along the perimeter of his remote northeastern Pennsylvania hunting
camp, but they failed to keep out at least one unwelcome visitor: a
wildlife conservation officer.

Acting on a tip, the officer walked onto Russo’s property
without a search warrant, found evidence the hunter had illegally
baited a bear and slapped him with a citation. Russo wound up
paying $3,600 in fines and restitution.

Now the state Supreme Court is taking up the case, agreeing to
hear Russo’s claim that the Pennsylvania Game Commis-sion’s
search-and-seizure practices run afoul of the state
constitution.

“We don’t allow police to search houses because they think there
might be drugs in there without a warrant. It’s the same thing
here,” said Andrew Bigda, Russo’s attorney.

At issue is a state law that permits game officers to go onto
private property without a warrant – even if the property is posted
with “No Trespassing” signs. Bigda said the law violates the state
constitution’s guarantee against unreasonable searches. A state
appeals court sided with the Game Commission earlier this year,
noting that “if Russo’s position were the law in our commonwealth,
criminals could very easily carry on illegal enterprises by merely
placing ‘No Trespassing’ signs around their property.”

The commission contends that if wildlife officers had to get a
warrant before entering posted property, poachers and other
violators would go uncaught and unpunished.

“Clearly, we have individuals who post their land, set out bait
and illegally kill wildlife,” said the commission’s chief counsel,
William Pouss.

“And I think it stands to reason that if it was held that (the
state constitution) allowed that sort of thing, it would become
more prevalent.”

After Russo killed the bear near his Wyoming County hunting
cabin on Nov. 25, 2002, he brought it to a Game Commission station
in Dallas, as required by law. Later that day, the commission sent
an officer to his property to check out a tip that Russo had baited
the bear.

The officer walked up Russo’s 600-foot driveway and spotted a
large pile of apple mash about 90 feet from the cabin. Bear blood
and tissue recovered from the mash pile helped convict Russo of
illegally baiting the animal.

Russo declined comment. Bigda said his client continues to
maintain that he did not bait the bear.

Bigda said his research has turned up case law from other
states, including New York, Vermont, Oregon, Montana and
Washington, in which evidence was suppressed because police had
gone onto posted, private land without search warrants.

Most of those cases involved drug seizures, not game violations,
but Bigda said the principle remains the same. In two states,
Kentucky and New Hampshire, courts have sided with the police, he
said.

In agreeing last week to take the case, the Supreme Court said
it would decide whether the state constitution “provides a
landowner with a reasonable expectation of privacy in his posted
property.”

State courts have previously found that the Pennsylvania
constitution affords greater privacy rights than the U.S.
Constitution.

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