MADISON, Wis. — Two Wisconsin lawmakers urged a committee this week to restrict the authority of conservation wardens who enter private property, a proposal stemming from the conviction of a farmer who got into a wrestling match with wardens he said he thought were trespassing.
The state Supreme Court ruled that Robert Stietz deserves a new trial in his 2012 skirmish with DNR wardens that became an armed standoff when he refused to turn over his gun. Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote that a jury could have concluded Stietz truly believed the wardens, who entered his land after noticing his car in a field, were trespassers.
The bill by Rep. Adam Jarchow and Sen. Dave Craig, both Republicans, would prohibit wardens enforcing fish, game and conservations laws from entering private land without at least reasonable suspicion of a crime. If a warden did enter private land without that prerequisite, any evidence seized would be inadmissible.
The lawmakers told the Assembly’s natural resources committee during a packed hearing this week that the DNR has interpreted case law as allowing wardens carte blanche access to private land.
Case law has established that evidence wardens collect in open fields without a warrant, probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a crime is admissible in court. Open fields are typically considered areas where Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures in people’s homes don’t apply.
Jarchow said his constituents feel the DNR has no limits. He said the bill establishes a “moderate middle ground” between law enforcement’s need to investigate crimes and private property rights.
“Preventing poaching is somehow so important we allow DNR incursions on private property for any reason under the sun or no reason at all,” Jarchow said. “It sounds like something is seriously out of whack here.”
Craig said reasonable suspicion is a minimal bar to clear to ensure constitutional rights are protected.
Democratic Rep. Dianne Hesselbein said the bill is designed to address one instance where wardens made a mistake with Stietz and she hasn’t been able to find any proof of wardens trespassing on private property.
Jarchow insisted he hears about wardens trespassing from his constituents “all the time.”
Clean Wisconsin, The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and the state Sierra Club chapter have all registered against the bill. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association and conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity have all registered in support.