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Know Your Rights When It Comes To Electronic Hunting Licenses And Illegal Searches

| Jul 14, 2020 | Firm News |

Since 2018, Michigan hunters, trappers, and fishers have had the option of keeping an electronic copy of their licenses on a digital device, instead of carrying and displaying a paper version. It’s a convenience that many sportsmen appreciate. These days, it’s easier to forget a paper license than your cell phone when you head outdoors, and you can apply for and download an electronic license from the comfort of your own home.

When do you have to show your license?

Just as with a paper license, under Michigan law you have a legal obligation to show your electronic license to a conservation officer, law enforcement officer, or tribal conservation officer upon request while you are:

  • Hunting, trapping, or fishing
  • Carrying a firearm or hunting, trapping, or fishing gear “in an area frequented by wild animals or fish.”

Please be aware that possession of an electronic license does not eliminate the requirement that hunters immediately affix a kill-tag to the animal, if the species hunted requires doing so. For example, if you shoot a deer or turkey, be sure to tag it immediately.

What the officer can and cannot look at on your phone

Showing an electronic license can mean handing your phone to the officer who asks to inspect your license. If that happens, then it is important to know your rights when it comes to what the officer has the right to look at, and what is off-limits.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 11 of the Michigan Constitution protect citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. With some exceptions, those protections mean that law enforcement must have a warrant to search your home, person, car or belongings. That includes your cell phone. In most instances, police cannot simply demand to see your phone without a warrant and then search through your contacts, calls, texts and apps.

But, what if you willingly hand your phone over to an officer, because that’s where you store your Michigan hunting, trapping, or fishing license? After all, you have a legal obligation to show the license when asked. What can the officer do with your phone once you hand it over for a license inspection? Does carrying an electronic hunting, trapping, or fishing license amount to agreeing to let law enforcement search the rest of your device?

Fortunately, Michigan law has answered this question clearly. The answer is “No.” Under the laws governing hunting, trapping, and fishing licenses, a person who carries an electronic license “is not presumed to have consented to a search of the electronic device.” What this means is that an officer cannot look at anything on your phone other than your license without you agreeing.

So, if a conservation or law enforcement officer asks to see your hunting, trapping, or fishing license, and then once you have handed over your device, asks for your permission to search through your apps, photos, contacts, etc., you can, and should, say “no.”

You have absolutely no obligation to consent to a search of your device, ever. If an officer ever asks (or, for that matter, doesn’t ask) for that consent, make it 100% clear that you do not consent and politely ask for your phone back. The officer only has a right to look at your electronic license. That’s it. Nothing else.