August 04, 2020

License check, improved

What began as a clarification of how game wardens stop motor vehicles has turned into a question in the Legislature of whether wardens should do anything but intercede in the most egregious hunting, fishing and trapping violations. Before lawmakers declare open season on some of Maine’s most-effective conservation laws, they should calm down and think about the benefit wardens bring to the state’s finest natural resources.

An amendment to that original bill, LD 2274, could help do that in the Senate today. Sen. Marge KilKelly, chairman of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, is expected to present a proposal that provides an intelligent balance between individual rights and the state’s duty to protect the resource. The amendment does three things: It requires the IF&W commissioner to develop written polices and training guidelines for wardens; it brings the commissioner before the Legislature each year to explain these rules and any changes that have occurred; and it describes under what conditions a warden may stop a person.

It is this third area that has caused discontent in the Legislature, sometimes for good reason. Commissioner Lee Perry readily concedes that wardens have not always been as circumspect as necessary. They haven’t always been polite, and sometimes they have been intimidating. That’s why new policies, especially regarding their behavior toward people, are important. It is also a reason for lawmakers to want to know what those policies are and how well they are being enforced.

But anecdotes about warden ham-handedness currently being shared in the State House are not reason to toss out their ability to check fishing, hunting and trapping licenses, as some legislators propose. The licenses not only fund the department, they serve an important conservation role in hunting, by regulating the harvest of, for instance, moose, deer and turkeys. If the licenses cannot be checked except for flagrant violations, the incentive to acquire them drops and overseeing this state’s natural resources becomes more difficult and, likely, more confrontational.

The Kilkelly amendment is clear, however, that warden authority is limited. A warden under this proposal would have the ability to stop people if the warden actually sees them hunting, fishing or trapping – the warden cannot simply assume it. To stop a vehicle, a warden must specifically see fish or game being transported. This should put an end to the stopped-for-wearing-an-orange-cap experience. And it goes further to properly limit their authority over vehicles, saying, “A stop … may not result in, or be used as a pretext for, a search of a vehicle, conveyance or container unless the person stopped consents to such a search or the warden has probable cause that a violation of law has occurred.”

Wardens have been checking licenses in Maine for a century and the attorney general’s office has a fistful of case law to demonstrate that doing so is a legal obligation of the state. What has become clear during this session’s legislative hearings is that the wardens need to do a better job when they carry out this duty. The amendment before the Senate will help them do that and deserves support.

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