While most people are familiar with law enforcement agencies across the state like city police, county deputies, and state patrol, there is another important police agency that does not get a lot of press. This is the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division (GDNRLED).
DNR officers are commonly referred to as “game wardens.” However, these officers provide much more service to the community than the nickname suggests.
Most people know that these officers enforce the game and fish laws, but many do not realize that they are endowed with full police powers. This means that a DNR officer can make arrests for violations of any state law as well as some federal laws anywhere in the state of Georgia. These officers can write traffic tickets, arrest accused murderers, bank robbers and any other alleged criminal that the officer may come into contact with.
Additionally, DNR officers are called on to assist in natural disasters, locate missing hunters and fisherman, and keep the peace, just like any other law enforcement officer.
I have been told by some of these officers that their job is different from any other police job in the world. Most law enforcement officers work on the highways, county roads, and interstates. A DNR officer works in all of these places too. But, these officers work the land and the waterways of our state as well. DNR officers must be able to properly use firearms, off road vehicles, boats, canoes, and sometimes airplanes. The officer must be able to swim, possess a good sense of direction, and most importantly use discretion in enforcing the law. This discretion is the most important tool for any law enforcement officer.
As with other jobs in protecting the public, this career can be dangerous. It is not uncommon for DNR officers to be working at night in remote areas trying to apprehend illegal hunters and trespassers. These officers also stop cars alone at night that have been seen “spotlighting” deer. These night hunters are always armed, sometimes intoxicated, and very unhappy about being stopped. The officer rarely has backup in these and other situations.
These officers also have enhanced police powers. Under some circumstances, DNR officers can enter upon private lands without permission or a search warrant. This is because of something known as the “open fields doctrine.” Basically, the appellate courts have held that the 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures do not apply to land or inanimate objects. The Amendment applies only to people.
A common example of the exercise of these greater powers occurs during dove hunting season. If a DNR officer believes that a dove field is illegally baited, he or she may show up at any time during the dove hunt to check the field, check the licenses of the hunters, or look for any other violation of game laws.
While these powers are great, they serve a good purpose. Without game and fish laws, Georgia would resemble its former self in the early part of the last century. Before game laws and officers to enforce them, people shot deer, turkey, and other game animals year round. Georgia’s deer and turkey numbers got so low that we had to import animals from other states like Texas, Ohio, and Kentucky. My father, who grew up in rural Berrien Co., didn’t even see a deer until he was a teenager. Other outdoorsmen will verify the tremendous growth of our game populations over the years. This is in big part to game laws and the men and women who enforce them. DNR officers in the west Georgia area, like Eric Brown, seem to love their jobs. They get to see things that the majority of our citizens have never seen; brand new fawns after they have been born, coyotes, hawks and owls taking their prey, and even bald eagles. The beautiful meadows, mountains, and streams of Georgia are a regular sight. As with every law enforcement officer or soldier, the next time you see a DNR officer, thank him or her for their service to our state.