PA: PGC stop-search power is reined in by new law

Harrisburg – Depending on whom you listen to, legislation Gov.
Ed Rendell signed into law Oct. 7 to reduce the powers of Game
Commission officers to conduct stops and searches to the same ones
granted other police in the commonwealth is either very significant
or insignificant.

House Bill 181, authored by Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster,
allows wildlife conservation officers to stop vehicles or conduct
searches only when there’s “reasonable suspicion” of a
violation.

“This brings the searching and seizure provisions of the Game
Code in line with state police and any other law-enforcement
official,” said Cutler. “The statute as drafted was
unconstitutional.”

Cutler’s measure had very strong support in the General
Assembly. The state Senate unanimously approved House Bill 181 in
early October, a few days before adjourning its legislative
session. The House unanimously passed the measure back in June of
2009.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania praised the
governor and Legislature for recognizing the flaws in the current
law and for approving House Bill 181.

“Sportsmen do not give up their rights and aren’t presumed to be
criminals simply because they hunt and fish,” said Andy Hoover,
legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Under current law, Game Commission officers can stop and search
someone at any time and for no reason, Hoover pointed out. HB 181
requires that commission officers find reasonable suspicion that a
crime has occurred to stop a vehicle and to ask for
identification.

They will need to meet the stronger probable-cause standard to
conduct a search.

Hoover noted that the ACLU of Pennsylvania has received numerous
complaints about stops and searches by commission officers,
although he admitted that he knows of no legal case that accused
the agency of abusing probable-cause rules.

His organization has never brought a case against the Game
Commission.

“We’ve been aware of the flaws in the current code for some
time,” Hoover said in a written statement. “At the ACLU, we prefer
revising bad law through legislation and only resort to litigation
when there is no other choice. In this case, the Legislature and
the governor understood that this needed to be fixed.”

A Game Commission spokes-man said that the new law – now Act 64
of 2010, which will go into effect in 60 days – will not change the
way the agency’s officers go about their duties. He noted that
despite “sloppily written details” in Title 34, the state’s Game
Code, agency officers have not abused their powers.

“The commission has for many years trained its 136 wildlife
conservation officers, 36 regional supervisors and 29 land managers
with law-enforcement authority to work within the same Supreme
Court-defined probable-cause rules as police,” said press secretary
Jerry Feaser.

“We have complied with the Supreme Court rules despite how Title
34 may have been written.

“We issue 9,000 to 10,000 citations a year, with a conviction
rate last year of about 97 percent. Our officers give 12,000 to
14,000 warnings annually and have 190,000 law-enforcement contacts
a year. In all that, we’ve had just a handful of complaints
filed.”

Feaser pointed out that the Game Commission supports the new
law. “We helped to write the bill – we worked very closely with
Rep. Cutler,” he said. “Through the years, changes were made to
Title 18, the Crimes Code, that affected all law enforcement in the
state, but for some reason the changes were never made in Title 34.
Why Title 34 was worded the way it was, we don’t know.

“But the bottom line is that our officers have always acted
within the bounds of the U.S. and state Constitution,” Feaser
said.

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