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Ranchers, farmers claim property illegally searched by game wardens

Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report
Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Slaughterville) in the House Chambers.
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Proposed change in state law fails in State committee

OKLAHOMA CITY – Protecting personal property rights took a backseat this week when a House panel rejected a proposal that would prevent game wardens from coming onto farm or ranch land after hearing a gunshot.

House Bill 2859 was designed to protect farmers and ranchers from intrusion by the Oklahoma Wildlife Department, said state Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Slaughterville), one of three lawmakers who supported the bill.

The measure, authored by state Rep. Sean Roberts (R-Hominy), would allow farmers and ranchers to shoot on their private property without allowing game wardens unfettered access to their land. Currently, game wardens are allowed to enter private property without knowing if illegal activity has occurred. A Senate public safety panel passed the proposal, but the measure failed in the House public safety committee.

Still, Cleveland said he intends to add the measure to an existing bill so it can be reconsidered by the full House.

“We have gotten things twisted around to the point where we don’t respect the right of private property,” Roberts said. “The core principle that I and many of my colleagues believe in is that land owners’ private property should be protected and respected by the government. There is always going to be some exceptions, but hearing a gunshot on a rural property is not something uncommon.”

Robert claims the explosion of the feral hog population has prompted farmers and ranchers to shoot at the animals before they destroy hay, wheat fields and grazing lands.

“The game wardens believe you have a right to own a gun, you just don’t have the right to fire it or (else) you give them probable cause to access your property or your neighbor’s property,” the lawmaker said.

The legislation stems partially from an incident on a ranch in Ryan, in southwest Oklahoma. The landowner, Rob Thornton, told Red Dirt Report that two game wardens drove a half mile onto the ranch, crossed two separate cattle guards, searched two vehicles, an 8,000-square foot barn, separated the ranch foreman from his 15-year-old son and wrote the teenager a $400 citation for shooting at a hog during hunting season.

The wardens claimed they heard gunshots, prompting them to cut the locks on a gate and drive onto private property.

“They found no guns, no dead animals, yet they searched my property,” Thornton said. “My son called me and said he and a friend had been stopped by the wardens. I told him ‘give me the phone.’ I asked the warden what occurred and he said, ‘we heard illegal shots.’ I told him ‘this is hunting season.’ Just because a gunshot is heard doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”

The game wardens also questioned a ranch hand and a group of friends who were at the ranch on Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, Thornton said. Witnesses also said the wardens separated the ranch hand from his 15-year-old son and wrote the teenager a citation for being a non-Oklahoma resident without a hunting license. The citation was later modified by Wildlife officials after learning the father has joint custody of the boy, who also lives with his mother out-of-state.

“I’m not mad at the game wardens. I support them. What I don’t support is the law that gives them the authority to come onto my private property just because they hear a gunshot. They say they have the right to cut your locks, drive onto your property and search it. How are you going to tell where the gunshot came from? On a good day with no wind and under the right conditions, a gunshot can be heard from 12 miles away,” Thornton said.

Thornton is angry that Wildlife officials did not take the incident seriously and “brushed it under the rug.” Game wardens reportedly told Thornton the Fourth Amendment, which addresses illegal searches and seizures by law enforcement, does not apply to garages and vehicles.

Thornton is a constituent of Cleveland’s, who wrote multiple letters to the Wildlife Department requesting an explanation for the private property intrusion.

Robert J. Fleenor, the department’s law enforcement chief, responded with a letter citing several state statutes dealing with game wardens’ duties and hunting.

“Please be assured that we take landowner relationships very seriously and respect their property rights,” Fleenor wrote. “However, entering private property to enforce Oklahoma’s Wildlife Conservation Code is an essential method of operation for a game warden, especially considering all of the wildlife found in Oklahoma are the property of the state held in trust on behalf of the people of Oklahoma and mover 95 percent of all land holdings in the state are privately held.”

In addition, Fleenor wrote game wardens do not normally enter private land “unless there is an apparent reason or cause to be there.”

Cleveland responded in a prepared statement that Oklahoma law should not prevent a rancher or farmer from shooting at a feral hog without purchasing a hunting license.

“You have a right to protect your property,” he said.

Thornton explained feral hogs can destroy large bales of hay that are designed as food for cattle.

“When we had that drought, we couldn’t keep hay,” he said. “The hogs would go into the field and destroy it. They can easily destroy 100 acres.”

State Rep. Ken Walker (R-Tulsa) objected to the arguments made by state wildlife officials.

“The courts may have given us cover to give law enforcement unwarranted intrusion onto private property, but that doesn’t mean we have to take that action,” he said in a prepared statement. “It was clear to me that Oklahomans deserve to have reasonable protections in place when it comes to their private land.”

In his letter to Cleveland, Fleenor cited U.S. Supreme Court cases from 1924, 2012 and 2013 that show Fourth Amendment protections do not extend to open fields, which include unoccupied or undeveloped areas outside the home’s immediate area.

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