When an Ohio wildlife officer showed up at Jeremy Bennett’s taxidermy shop last year, Jeremy made what he thought was a simple request. “We’re closed for the season,” he told the officer. “We don’t open up for another few weeks, but you’re welcome to come back when we do.” Without saying much more, the officer left, and Jeremy thought that was the end of the matter.
It was not. Three months later, Jeremy received notice that he was being criminally prosecuted for refusing to allow an inspection of his taxidermy shop. The possible penalties? A fine of up to $2,000 and six months in jail.
Jeremy was outraged but not entirely surprised. For years, Ohio wildlife officers had asserted increasingly broad authority to inspect Jeremy’s taxidermy shop. They entered without his consent or a warrant. And once inside, they spent hours snooping around Jeremy’s private rooms, opening his cabinets and drawers, and rifling through his papers.
Ohio is not conducting some sort of health or safety inspection. Indeed, the state doesn’t license or regulate the practice of taxidermy in any way, so there would be nothing for the officers to check for.
Instead, they are looking for bookkeeping violations. Ohio—presumably to catch hunters who are violating the state’s hunting laws—requires taxidermists to keep records of the animals they work on. Wildlife officers, in turn, are granted broad power to inspect taxidermy shops, without a warrant, “at all reasonable hours.”
To Jeremy, these searches are anything but reasonable. Jeremy built his taxidermy shop by hand, just a few hundred feet from his home, where he and his wife homeschool their five young children. The kids often stop by the shop to spend time with dad, deliver a message from mom, or play in the surrounding yard.
In short, Jeremy’s taxidermy shop is a private place, and anyone who visits would know that: Jeremy has posted signs on the front door that read “ENTRY BY APPOINTMENT ONLY. PRIVATE PREMISES.”
But to Ohio’s wildlife officers, none of that matters. Officers can show up at any time they deem “reasonable”—even when Jeremy’s shop is closed. They can enter without a warrant, no judicial signoff required, and spend hours wandering around, with no limits on what they can touch, open, or look through.
If Jeremy objects for any reason at all, they can charge him with a crime and threaten to put him in jail.
That is unconstitutional. The Fourth Amendment forbids warrantless searches, and it forbids the government from criminally prosecuting people for saying “no” when officials show up and demand entry.
Unfortunately, courts nationwide often accord businesses virtually no Fourth Amendment protection. And they do this despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s warning that very few businesses—only those that are both ultrahazardous and heavily regulated—may be inspected without a warrant.
In November, IJ filed a lawsuit on Jeremy’s behalf to challenge Ohio’s warrantless inspections of his shop. Our message is simple: People don’t give up their Fourth Amendment rights when they open a business, and it’s time that the courts take the rights of all Americans seriously—at home and at work.
Joshua Windham is an IJ attorney.