Wildlife Conservation Commission Officers in Florida: What You Need to Know

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.”

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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

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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Comment section

9 comments on “Wildlife Conservation Commission Officers in Florida: What You Need to Know

  1. Shouldn’t Florida Statute 339.3313 (2) which clearly states in applicable part… “while such vessels are on the water” limit any search only to vessels on the water and not after they have been trailered and/or left the water? (Such as raised on a lift, etc.)

    • Hi David. Thanks for your question. Please see the below response from one of our Independent Program Attorneys in Florida.

      “Yes, however, 379.3313 also allows: ‘such law enforcement officers have the authority, without warrant, to board, inspect, and search any boat, fishing appliance, storage or processing plant, fish house, sponge house, oyster house, or other warehouse, building, or vehicle engaged in transporting or storing any fish or fishery products. Such authority to search and inspect without a search warrant is limited to those cases in which such law enforcement officers have reason to believe that fish or any saltwater products are taken or kept for sale, barter, transportation, or other purposes in violation of laws or rules adopted under this law.’ This would include a boat being towed or out of the water under many circumstances.”

  2. I have a question: can FWC search living quarters in the vessel? So bedrooms etc? Thank you!

  3. Great article!
    However it doesn’t go into detail about FWC officers ability to enter private property, and if it matters if there is a fence and gate.
    I recently awoke at 2 in the morning to 4 fwc officers in my yard with a dog. I live in the middle of nowhere on a 100 acre farm fully fenced in and accessible only through a gate. The gate was open so they must have came through but I don’t understand why they were looking for someone on my fenced in property and I’m curious if the gates closed can they jump over it or break it open to just walk around and look?

  4. This is a great article, but I still have a question for when the FWC is enforcing federal game and fish laws, outside of the 9 mile state boundary, in federal waters.

    Can they require you to provide them your identification (this would apply to state waters as well) on a random stop? Can they enforce state laws, obviously there is no federal fishing liscense for recreation, but state required safety equipment? Must you allow them to board your boat when it is small enough for them to see everything from their vessel? Do the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council rules apply, when offshore of Alabama, in federal waters when stopped by FWC?

  5. I still have some questions regarding FWC enforcing federal law outside of the 9 mile state water limit.

    Are we required to provide identification (this applies to state waters as well) when stopped for a regular inspection?

    Can FWC hold you to state laws in federal waters? There is no federal fishing license for recreation, can they ask for a state license?

    Can they enforce the rules for state required safety equipment?

    Can they apply Florida’s lobster season to divers in federal waters but off the coast of Alabama or Mississippi where there are no lobster regulations?

    Do the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council rules then apply?

    Much of this area is vague and you get conflicting answers depending on who, at which agency you contact.

  6. Are there any rights for anglers while actively fishing? What rights do we have to prevent officers from coming into your fishing spot in shallow water and completely shutting down the fish? If there are no reasonable reasons except to just do a safety check.

  7. Can an FWC officer climb a locked gate, walk on about a mile on private land to “check on turkey hunters?”

  8. For all of you asking questions about where an FWC officer can go, the short answer is: “wherever they want.”

    There are very few limitations (private residence, where you sleep, on land, if anyone is living there). And outside? not so much. Our fences and gates are no limitation to “legal access” by an FWC Officer.

    To find the text of the FL Statutes, go here:
    http://www.leg.state.fl.us/

    For FWC regulations, find — Title XXVII (Natural Resources; Conservation, Reclamation, & Use)

    Then look down under Chapter 379 (Fish and Wildlife Conservation)

    Find PART V (Law Enforcement) and click that (Part V)

    Their powers are listed under 379.3313

    If you look thru the entire Part V as to when, where, & what they can or cannot do, you’ll see they have the most power of any other state, county, or city officers. You want to be very nice to them… always.

    FWIW, I watched 1 FWC Officer throw 6 police and over a dozen firemen off a farm property. The farmer was being told to put out a fire, but he had a state issued “burn permit” from FWC (was a “no-burn” county). The county boys all tucked in their tails and left. 🙂

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