HARRISBURG- The Pennsylvania Senate today unanimously passed legislation to rein in the power of state Game Commission officers to stop vehicles and to conduct searches. The passage of House Bill 181 won praise from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
"Sportsmen are not presumed to be criminals simply because they hunt and fish," said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "This bill fixes a major flaw in the state law. We're grateful that the Senate recognized the need for it."
Under current law, officers of the Game Commission can stop a vehicle or person and engage a search of that vehicle or person at anytime and for no reason. HB 181, introduced by Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster County), aligns the commission's power to conduct stops and searches with the police. The bill requires officers to find reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred before conducting a stop or before asking a person for identification. It also requires a finding of probable cause to conduct a search.
HB 181 unanimously passed the House last year and now heads to Governor Rendell's desk for his signature. Hoover noted that the Game Commission does not oppose the bill.
"The commission recognizes that the law is flawed," Hoover said. "With recent changes to the poaching laws, this fix is absolutely necessary."
On September 7, new laws increasing the grading and punishment for illegal hunting, or poaching, went into effect. Hoover said that the ACLU of Pennsylvania believes that, with defendants facing felony charges for poaching, there will be more trials in these cases. Under the old laws, poaching was a summary offense.
"With these changes, the law enforcement powers of the Game Commission will come under greater scrutiny," Hoover said. "HB 181 potentially cuts off constitutional challenges by changing the current law to bring it in line with the federal and state constitutions."