SCOTUS Denies Review of Game Warden Warrantless Search

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 06, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the California Supreme Court’s 2011 People v. Maikhio warrantless search ruling this week. The denial could be bad news for California’s parks enthusiasts, as it means that game wardens still do not need a warrant to stop cars exiting the state’s hunting and fishing grounds.

The case originated in San Diego, where a game warden, who was surveilling a public fishing pier with a spotting telescope, witnessed fisherman Bouhn Maikhio catching and bagging either a lobster or a fish.

The warden stopped Maikhio's car and found a live California spiny lobster in the bag. Maikhio, who was later charged with the misdemeanor of catching a lobster out of season, moved to suppress the evidence from the stop and search. Though Maikhio prevailed in the lower courts, the California Supreme Court sided with the warden, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

The California Supreme Court ruled that a game warden who reasonably believes that a person has recently been fishing or hunting, but lacks reasonable suspicion that the person has violated an applicable fish or game statute or regulation, may stop the suspect's vehicle to demand the person display all fish or game the person has caught or taken.

In ruling against Maikhio, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye noted that hunters and anglers engage in highly-regulated sports, so they have a diminished expectation of privacy. The court reasoned that the "intrusion upon privacy engendered by a game warden's stop of an angler or hunter to demand the display of his or her catch or take is relatively minor," and furthers the state's interest in conservation.

The California Supreme Court believes that there is a distinction between warrantless searches conducted for conservation purposes and warrantless searches conducted for the ordinary enforcement of criminal laws. Do you agree? What if the game warden had found drugs in the suspect's car instead of just an out-of-season lobster? Would that have changed the California Supreme Court's ruling? Would it have prompted SCOTUS review?

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