Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission Officers (FWC Officers) are not like the police—they are the police, explains David Katz, Independent Program Attorney for U.S. LawShield in Florida. [Transcript continues below the video.]
FWC Officers Legal Role
By statute, FWC Officers are licensed Florida law enforcement. They are arguably some of the most powerful police in Florida. In addition, the federal government, specifically the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Commerce, commission Florida FWC Officers with power to enforce federal fisheries and wildlife laws in Florida. FWC Officers have full police power to inspect, search, seize, and arrest. Note this police power is not simply for hunting or fishing violations. FWC Officers possess the full power to arrest for any violations of the law, hunting related or not. So, understand, when you’re dealing with an FWC Officer, you are dealing with a police officer. If you are caught breaking the law, he or she will perform their duties in enforcing the laws and appropriate restitutions.
FWC Officers and Searches and Seizures
We are all familiar with our Constitutionally guaranteed rights contained in the Bill of Rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Those hallowed words are memorialized in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”
However, what do these words mean when you are confronted by an FWC Officer? What are their police powers to search you or your property? Does the Fourth Amendment have any meaning at all anymore? For many lovers of liberty, the rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment have been largely chipped away and provide little real protection in real-life scenarios. This has been done by courts creating legal exceptions to the Fourth Amendment so broad as to allow a warrantless search, unreasonable, articulable suspicion alone.
The legal standards for an FWC Officer to search your property, including freezers, coolers, refrigerators, and other areas in cabins, shacks, homes, trailers, or vehicles, are contained in Florida Statute 339.3311, which provides that an FWC Officer may examine any person, boat, conveyance, vehicle, game bag… or other receptacle for wild-animal life, marine life, or freshwater aquatic life, or any camp, tent, cabin, or roster in the presence of any person stopping at such or belonging to such camp, tent, cabin, or roster, when such officer has reason to believe and has exhibited his or her authority and stated to the suspected person in charge the officer’s reason for believing that any of the aforesaid laws have been violated at such camp.
What is reason to believe? This issue has been left to the courts, and as such, almost anything seems to pass for a legal justification. Additionally, Florida Statute 339.3313 (2) states that an FWC Officer who has probable cause to believe that the vessel has been used for fishing prior to the inspection shall have full authority to open and inspect all containers or areas where saltwater products are normally kept aboard vessels while such vessels are on the water. Such as refrigerated or ice locations, coolers, fish boxes, and bait wells. Note that this applies to even law-abiding anglers. The only requirement here is that the FWC Officer have probable cause to believe you have been fishing.
FWC Officers and Stop-and-Board Powers
FWC Officers also have the authority to stop and board vessels which are not being used for fishing. Just being on the water gives an FWC Officer a right to stop you, without cause, to conduct a safety inspection. Further, Florida Statute 379.334 gives the FWC Officers the authority to board any vessel boat or vehicle or to enter any fish house or warehouse or other building exclusive of residence in which game, hides, fur-bearing animals, fish, or fish nets are kept and to search for and seize any such game, hides, fur-bearing animals, fish, or fish nets had or held there in violation of the law without a warrant if the officer has probable cause to believe that the fishing or hunting laws have been broken.
FWC Officers Jurisdiction
The lesson is that FWC Officers have extensive search powers, and they will use them whenever it is necessary to perform their duties. Just as deer and other wild animals cross city and county lines, so does the jurisdiction of Florida FWC Officers. Although FWC Officers in Florida may have a home base, their jurisdiction is statewide. This means that an FWC Officer’s jurisdiction extends to every corner of the state, not only where wild animals and wildlife can be found. FWC Officers have power like other police officers to make arrests anywhere in the state where violations of the law are committed in their presence, but unlike other officers of the state, they may also make arrest for violation of the law not committed in their presence, if committed on lands under the supervision of the FWC commission, including state parks, coastal and aquatic managed areas, greenways, and trails.
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