A conservation officer is subject to the same state and federal constitutional search and seizure constraints as other law enforcement officers in the performance of his or her duties.
The warrantless search of a fish house by a conservation officer, in the absence of express consent, probable cause or other circumstances justifying entry, violates constitutional protections against search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution.
Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stringer, Justice
In the course of his duties, a Minnesota conservation officer entered the fish house of Marvin Russell Larsen (respondent) to conduct a routine license check. Upon entry, the officer discovered that respondent had three fishing lines in the water and that he was in possession of marijuana. Respondent was charged with a controlled substance offense and angling with one more line than allowed under his license. Respondent moved to suppress all evidence as obtained in an unauthorized search of his fish house. The district court granted respondent's motion and dismissed all charges, and the court of appeals affirmed. We affirm.
On the evening of January 31, 2001, Officer Scott Fritz, a licensed peace officer employed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a conservation officer, was patrolling fish house activities on Circle Lake in Rice County, Minnesota. Circle Lake has a public access that provides an entrance point for anglers and snowmobilers and Officer Fritz estimated that on this particular day there were approximately 60 to 80 fish houses on the lake. In the performance of his duties under Minn. Stat. § 97A.215 (2000),*fn1 Officer Fritz proceeded from fish house to fish house knocking on occupied shelters, identifying himself, and checking licenses. At approximately 6:30áp.m., Officer Fritz arrived at respondent's fish house which was illuminated and had a vehicle parked next to it. Officer Fritz knocked on the door, identified himself as a state game warden and simultaneously opened the door. As he entered, he had no reason to suspect a violation of fishing laws and concedes that respondent did not expressly consent to his entry. Officer Fritz believed however, that he had authority to enter and inspect occupied fish shelters in this manner under Minnesota law.
Upon entering the fish house, Officer Fritz noticed a strong smell of marijuana and saw what appeared to be a marijuana cigarette. He conducted a pat-down search of respondent and found a bag of marijuana. He also noticed that respondent had three lines in the water when only two are permitted. Respondent was charged with possession of a controlled substance pursuant to Minn. Stat. §á152.027, subd. 4 (2000), and unlawful angling lines pursuant to Minn. Stat. §á97C.315 (2000).
Respondent moved to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of Officer Fritz's entry and search of his fish house and to have the charges against him dismissed, asserting that Minn. Stat. § 97A. 215 authorizing a conservation officer to "enter and inspect" his fish house was unconstitutional. Respondent further argued that a fish house is a temporary place of occupancy for anglers, and as such, it is frequently equipped with various accommodations for short-term living including heating, cooking, and other conveniences such as television and sleeping accommodations, much like a private home, and as with a private home, an enforcement officer is without lawful authority to conduct a search of a private fish house without a warrant or other circumstance authorizing an entry. The district court granted respondent's motion ruling that although a fish house was not necessarily comparable to a home, an occupant has a reasonable expectation of privacy and Officer Fritz's entry into respondent's fish house without consent, a warrant, probable cause, or articulable suspicion was unlawful. In doing so, the district court rejected the state's argument that the exception to the warrant requirement for administrative inspections of "closely regulated" businesses applied, see New York v. Burger, 482 U.S. 691, 693 (1987), noting that recreational fishing is a purely private activity and occupants should not be subject to the more relaxed standards of right to privacy accorded commercial entities.
The state appealed asserting that Officer Fritz's entry into respondent's fish house without a warrant was authorized under Minn. Stat. § 97A.215, subd. 3:
An enforcement officer may, at reasonable times:
enter and inspect the premises of an activity requiring a license under the ...