Outdoor Regulations in Washington: State vs. Federal Lands: A Lawyer’s Prospective.
State & Federal Lands in Washington
While enjoying yourself in the outdoors, you may be contacted in the course of an investigation by officials from a number of different government agencies. Each agency is responsible for specific jurisdictions and has certain duties, powers, and reasons for being created. It is important to understand what type of land you are on because the regulations and officials controlling the land can be dramatically different and an error can result in serious criminal trouble. Do not be caught unaware. Whether you are confident or are unsure, it is important you recognize any time you are talking with government personnel, you run the risk of admitting to something you should not. As criminal defense lawyers, we advise clients to avoid incriminating themselves by talking. Be quite, listen and as an old wise hunter once said, “the less said, the better.” Admit to nothing and engage a private criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Making a mistake is one thing, admitting and being punished criminally for it is another.
Federal Land In Washington
Many people do not realize there is a difference between a National Park and a National Forrest. A National Park’s goal is strict preservation of pristine areas to keep them “unimpaired for future generations.” Park rangers are responsible for the numerous National parks in Washington State and they work for the National Park Service, which falls under the Department of Interior, which is federal. On the other hand, National Forest is generally considered multiple use, meaning the rules and regulations written by the government’s lawyers are designed to support a variety of interest groups. So, in addition to resource preservation, National Forests are also managed to provide timber, grazing space for cattle, mineral products and recreation (i.e. hunting, snowmobiling, climbing, hiking, etc.) Forest rangers are responsible for National Forests and they work for the United States Forest Service (USFS) which falls under the Department of Agriculture and federal jurisdiction.
The key objective of National Parks and National Forests are different and so the criminal regulations are different. One such example is hunting is not permitted in National Parks but is often allowed in National Forests. This can be especially problematic where a National Park is adjacent to a National Forest or someone gets confused or is unfamiliar with the boundary. Another example includes dogs being permitted on trails in National forests but not in parks.
Many people do not realize that the USFS has a law enforcement and investigation staff (LEI) along with the support of prosecuting attorneys, who have the authority to enforce laws and regulations, such as the prevention of illegal hunting, damaging timber, and fire issues (remember, Smokey the Bear is USFS!). Responsibilities also include enforcing drug laws, firearm violations, conducting preliminary investigations and responding to unplanned incidents. The criminal investigators investigate suspected criminal, civil, and administrative law violations, which are related to the National Forest System. The USFS LEI staff has cooperative agreements with other government agencies, whether they are State, Federal, or Local to enforce regulations in line with their policies. It is also important to note since the National Park and National Forest System are Federal land, cases stemming from these lands will commonly be prosecuted in the Federal Court system. As criminal defense lawyers, we find it is odd to appear in federal court, over minor criminal hunting, drug, assault and firearm violations at a time when Federal Court resources are spread thin but it does happen.
WARNING – While the people of Washington State have determined legalizing the consumption of marijuana under certain conditions is appropriate, the Federal government has not reached that conclusion yet. When you are in National Parks (and thus, Federal land) possession of marijuana remains criminalized and you may be federally prosecuted.
Washington State Land & Enforcement
Just like on Federal land, it is important to be aware of the rules and regulations governing the Washington State land you are on. They are different than those for Federal land. While on State land, you may encounter Washington State Park Rangers or Washington State Fish & Wildlife Officers. A Washington State Park Ranger is a law enforcement position. While not all duties may be enforcement related, all are commissioned officers who can arrest you as opposed to National park rangers. Unlike Washington State Park Rangers, not all National Park rangers are commissioned officers. The ones that are commissioned rangers are essentially federal law enforcement officers with authority to enforce state and federal laws within National Park land.
The term “State” land can be construed in several different ways. Most obviously, it is land owned by the State. However, from an enforcement perspective, State laws govern all land in Washington that is not classified as Federal. Even more confusing, State laws may be used for enforcement on Federal land as well in certain circumstances. As criminal defense attorneys who look out for the interests of our clients, it is important to point out that whether it is public “State” land or private land, the rules and regulations of Washington State govern the activities being conducted on it. This is a key point for Trapping, Dealing with Problem Animals, Unlawful Hunting of Big Game and Civil Seizure Actions. Many people are under the false impression they can do what they want on their own private land or the private land of another … this is simply not true. What is true is when it comes to enforcement, jurisdictional rules and permission govern where State, County, and City officials are permitted to go and enforce regulations. Regarding fish and wildlife related issues; Fish & Wildlife officers may go onto any state owned lands. They can also go onto private land if they have permission. Often, Fish & Wildlife officers will have written permission from lumber companies and tree farms who own private forestland in order to enforce regulation. Similarly, power companies who have easements running through large swaths of rural property will give written permission for their interests to be patrolled by Fish & Wildlife officers. We see a lot of Unlawful Hunting of Big Game charges and seizure actions originate in this manner. Without prior permission to enter private land, if an officer wants to go onto a private property but they do not have permission from the owner, they will then need to obtain a warrant or their venture onto the private land must fall under a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. One common exception is seeing illegal activity on private land from a vantage point where the officer was legally entitled to be. This exception to the warrant requirement has resulted in a number of Unlawful Hunting of Big Game and Waste charges over the years.
While Fish & Wildlife officers have the entire state as their jurisdiction, other types of officers are far more restricted in their movement. A county sheriff will stay in their specific county unless there is a specific reason and permission to enforce laws outside of that county. A city officer will have a similar restriction where he or she stays in their specific city unless there is a specific reason and permission to venture outside of city limits. An example of when an officer legally ventures outside of their jurisdiction may include being a part of a special enforcement task-force that requires more personnel than the specific jurisdiction has. The jurisdiction will invite other officers from outside of their area to help enforcement. Those outside officers will also have written permission to be there. In many situations, there will also be an overlap of jurisdictions where multiple different types of officers can handle a certain situation and may work together. An individual who does something illegal on a city road could be stopped by that city’s police, the sheriff from the county where the city is, or Washington State Patrol. Making sure the arresting officer has authorization or permission to enforce the law is one of the first steps our defense attorneys check on in these kinds of cases.