Court ruling deemed crucial for wildlife officers’ duties

Toledo, Ohio – An Erie County Court decision that could have
seriously hampered the ability of state wildlife officers to
investigate possible hunting and wildlife violations on private
property has been reversed by the Sixth District Court of Appeals
in Toledo.

In a 3-0 decision, the court affirmed that Section 1513.14 of
the Ohio Revised Code grants authority to state wildlife officers
to enter private property in pursuit of their duties.

The case stems from an incident in rural Erie County on Oct. 23,
2006, involving wildlife officer Jared Abele, who was then assigned
to Erie County but now assigned to Monroe County, Ohio.

Court documents said that Abele witnessed William Coburn, Todd
Parkinson and Marvin Coburn hunting doves on William Coburn’s
property on Sept. 1, 2006. That was opening day of the migratory
game bird season.

The officer approached the hunters to check their licenses and
compliance with daily bag limits, and while doing so noticed “wheat
seed in piles and scattered along the ground where the (men) were
hunting,” according to court documents. As a result, Abele charged
the men with hunting migratory game birds over bait.

In an appearance in county court in Milan in December 2006, the
men argued that Abele unlawfully entered the Coburn property
“without good cause to believe a law was being violated.” In July
2007, the county court agreed.

But the office of Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter decided to
appeal the finding in the Sixth District in Toledo.

Section 1531.14 states generally that DNR Division of Wildlife
employees may enter private property when doing research in and
investigation of game- or fish-related activities or when they are
checking on dumping of refuse in or along streams, or are enforcing
watercraft laws, among other causes.

But the trial court cited the immediate prior section of law,
1531.13, which states that “any regularly employed salaried
wildlife officer may enter any private lands or water if the
wildlife officer has good cause to believe and does believe that a
law is being violated.”

The lower court found “absolutely no factual evidence…to suggest
that the checking of licenses and/or bag limits was anything but
routine.” It then interpreted that the “good cause” clause
signalled intent by state lawmakers to limit wildlife officers, so
that they “not have unfettered right of intrusion on private
property unless ‘good cause’ exists.”

The appeals court, however, said that once Abele saw the men
hunting, the law allowed him to enter the property “in pursuit of
his duties, one of which was to ensure that people are hunting
lawfully.

“We disagree with the trial court that (the section of law)
gives wildlife officers ‘unfettered’ access to private property.
Nothing in our decision today should be read to say that wildlife
officers can enter private property at any time for any reason.
What is important in this case is that Abele first saw (the men)
hunting and then he entered the property.”

Trevor Hayberger, an assistant Erie County prosecutor, said that
the case now will be returned to the court in Milan for pretrial
hearing and possible trial, likely during the next 30 days.

“Our judge had a really tough call,” Hayberger added about the
local court’s interpretations of the pertinent sections of the
state code.

State wildlife authorities were pleased with the reversal.

“This is very good news,” said Gino Barna, a wildlife officer
supervisor for the Division of Wildlife in northwest Ohio.

Wildlife investigator Jay Harnish agreed.

“I was very happy to see that decision.” Had the original
finding stood up, he added, “our right to enter private property
would have been jeopardized. Hat’s off to Trevor and the Erie
County prosecutor’s office for going the distance on this.”

The investigator said that periodically similar cases have
arisen and been appealed, all in the state’s favor, in other
appeals court districts. But until now it had not been appealed in
the Sixth District.

Had the lower court decision been upheld, the state wildlife
decision ultimately might have had to seek relief from state
lawmakers in other to properly perform their duties, Harnish
said.

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