You may go years without being checked by a game warden as a sportsman. When it does happen, most hunters and anglers recognize the officer’s authority to do so, but what about when they pull you over in a vehicle?
Can a game warden pull you over? What authority does a game warden have?
As with many legal issues, the answer is “it depends.” It depends on who the officer works for, what you are doing, and where you are doing it. Each will play a part in determining if or when a game warden may pull you over.
Who does the Game Warden work for?
Many people assume that game wardens are the same as park rangers. This assumption is incorrect. Game wardens, or conservation officers, rarely work for state or federal parks. Nor do they perform the same duties as a park ranger.
Unlike park rangers, game wardens have statewide authority, and their primary responsibility is law enforcement. Although their focus is the enforcement of fish and game laws, they routinely respond to violations of other laws.
While most state game wardens work for the agency responsible for fish and game protection, this agency may be part of the more extensive department that includes state parks and forests but is usually a separate bureau or office.
In other states, including Oregon and Alaska, game wardens are part of the state police.
Obviously, in those states where game wardens are also state police officers, their ability to pull over a vehicle is the same as any other state police officer. In the remaining states, the authority to conduct a vehicle stop varies.
All game wardens are peace officers, a designation necessary to make arrests and perform other duties that are part of their daily duties.
In many states, this designation also provides them with full police powers. This designation would allow them to conduct vehicle stops even if unrelated to a fish or game violation.
Even states that do limit a game warden’s general law enforcement authority exceptions exist that allow such activity during specific situations.
What are you doing When the Game Warden Stops You?
A game warden’s authority to stop and inspect those involved in hunting or fishing activities is almost limitless. In some states, this includes boating or similar outdoor activities as well.
This authority generally includes the ability to stop anyone involved in these activities, check required licenses or permits, and inspect any wild fish or game in possession.
In many states, this includes hunters in the field and those utilizing a boat or vehicle while pursuing game.
Some states even allow the use of checkpoints near popular hunting or fishing areas, borders, or significant travel routes to these areas.
Although these checkpoints focus on uncovering fish and game violations, even non-hunters who pass through checkpoints are subject to short detention. This authority has been upheld by numerous courts at both the state and federal level.
A game warden’s authority to stop you for a violation not related to hunting or fishing varies from state to state. In those states where game wardens are granted full police powers, such a stop would be subject to restrictions like any other police officer.
In states where police authority is limited, a game warden’s ability to conduct vehicle stops would depend on the law’s specific wording or regulation granting or limiting such power.
Where are you?
When determining if a game warden can pull you over, the final consideration is your specific location.
Are you on a highway or a rural road?
Does that roadway travel through land owned or controlled by the state?
Is that land part of a wildlife area, state park, or state forest?
Again, a game warden’s authority to make a vehicle stop on a typical highway or roadway is determined by whether they have full or limited police powers.
That changes when you travel on a street or road that is part of, or even passes through, state-owned or controlled property. This is especially true when that property is part of a wildlife management area, state park, or state forest.
Regardless of what specific agency a game warden may work for, they are always a state law enforcement officer.
In some states, this allows, or even requires, a game warden to address observed violations that occur on state property. This may include roadways that provide access to or pass through such properties.
In-state properties dedicated to wildlife management or as state parks and state forests, a game warden’s authority is less ambiguous.
Not only do they have the power to enforce all laws in these areas, but they may also be the officer with primary responsibility to do so.
Game wardens not only patrol these areas regularly, but many of the properties are owned by the agency for whom they work.
When it comes to game wardens, regardless of what authority they may have elsewhere when on these properties, they are responsible for detecting, investigating, and prosecuting violations of any law.
What to do if a game warden pulls you over
If a game warden pulls you over, the side of the road is not the time or place to determine whether they have the authority to do so.
It is unlikely you know the specifics of the game warden’s authority and arguing during the stop is unlikely to produce a positive outcome.
Instead of arguing, comply with the officer’s instructions. Request a hearing if you receive a citation or ticket and feel the stop was unlawful. One of the first things the judge will do is determine whether the game warden had the authority to make such a stop.
If no citation is issued, contact the officer’s agency, and speak with a supervisor. This supervisor will be able to explain what authority the game warden possesses and, if the stop was contrary to that authority, be able to address any complaints you may have.