US Supreme Court urges caution in Vermont deer jacking decision

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Published: Oct. 20, 2020 at 4:52 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The U.S Supreme Court has signaled a warning to Vermont’s highest court in rejecting to take up a case involving deer poaching and privacy rights. The issue revolved around whether the wardens could legally rely on what they saw while on the property of a man they were investigating on a charge of illegally hunting at night, or "deer jacking.''

In November of 2017, Vermont Game Wardens responded to a deer jacking call in the town of Huntington. According to court paperwork while knocking on the door of the defendant, Clyde Bovat, the wardens say they looked through the garage door and noticed what they thought was possible evidence in Bovat’s truck -- deer hair and blood on the top of the truck’s rear tailgate. Authorities then obtained a warrant leading to charges against Bovat.

But there remains a factual dispute over how long the wardens spent at the house, “If they are where they are allowed to be, approaching the front door, and they see something that suggests criminal activity, they are allowed to put that in a search warrant,” said Chittenden County Deputy State’s Attorney David Tartter.

“This is them specifically walking off of the path that they would have walked to get to the front door and peering into this window and I think that raises serious privacy concerns that we should all as Vermonters be concerned about,” said Samantha Lednicky, Bovat’s lawyer.

The case made it to the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled that the wardens did not violate the 4th Amendment, which protects against undue search and seizure.

“Essentially, because of a doctrine known as the plain view doctrine, and this idea that at least according to the Vermont Supreme court -- law enforcement can sort of go around your property and if they see something, they are not required to ignore it,” said Jared Carter, a professor at the Vermont Law School.

This week the U.S. Supreme court rejected a petition to look at the case, but Carter says Justices Gorsuch, Sotomayor, and Kagan had a message for Vermont. “Essentially a warning shot to the Vermont Supreme Court saying, ‘Hey, next time you do this sort of analysis, make sure you follow our directions with respect to the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution,’” Carter said. He says the Justices' note has no legal significance and is more of a symbolic warning. "The U.S. Supreme Court said, even though we are not going to take the case and review it -- and reject it -- at least some of the justices, such as Gorsuch, pointed out -- don’t think that the Vermont Supreme Court came to the right conclusion in terms of the 4th Amendment.

Vermont Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter says even though the full Supreme Court declined to hear the case and Bovat’s case was upheld by the state Supreme Court, he says his wardens will heed the high court’s advice. “We will make sure that we are taking into account the opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court in making sure our procedures and policies comply with that,” Porter said.

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