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Bill would restrict Wisconsin wardens on private property

File photo (WLUK/Scott Hurley)

MADISON (AP) -- Two Wisconsin lawmakers urged a committee Wednesday 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 last month that Robert Stietz deserves a new trial in his 2012 confrontation with Department of Natural Resources 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 conservation 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 in court.

The lawmakers told the Assembly's natural resources committee during a packed hearing Wednesday afternoon that the DNR has interpreted case law as allowing wardens carte blanche access to private land.

Federal court decisions dating to the 1920s, known collectively as the open fields doctrine, have established that warrantless searches of open fields don't violate the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Under the doctrine, evidence seized during such searches is admissible.

Craig told the committee that reasonable suspicion is a minimal bar to clear to ensure constitutional rights are protected.

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."

Stietz and his wife, Sue, testified that the incident on their southwestern Wisconsin property was a "nightmare" and has cost them thousands of dollars in attorney fees.

"I almost lost my husband," Sue Stietz said. "That confrontation on our land ... did not have to happen. Bob was obeying the law. It wouldn't have happened if the DNR needed reasonable suspicion."

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."

A DNR spokesman told The Associated Press that he would check on how many complaints the agency has received about wardens trespassing but as of mid-afternoon hadn't provided any statistics.

Larry Bonde, chairman of the Conservation Congress, an group of sportsmen that advise the DNR on policy, told the committee that he's seen no evidence of wardens abusing their powers. It's unreasonable to restrict warden patrols to only public land since 80 percent of Wisconsin's land is private property, he said.

Mike Arrowood, a Fond du Lac property owner, called the bill "an obscene idea." He said he believes hunters routinely violate Wisconsin's regulations and the legislation would amount to a "get out of jail free card" because wardens would have no chance of ever detecting them on private land.

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.

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