The Seventh Circuit held last week that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless searches of taxidermy businesses. The case, United Taxidermists Association v. Illinois Department of Natural Resources, was commenced in 2005 after a taxidermist who was frustrated with the state’s periodic warrantless inspections formed the United Taxidermists Association and persuaded 30 other Illinois taxidermists to join his cause (although more than 600 declined his invitation).
The taxidermists challenged the Illinois Wildlife Code in particular, which requires them to be licensed and to keep detailed written records regarding all animals and animal parts that they receive. These records must also correspond to tags attached to each animal in their possession, and all “taxidermy records” must be open to inspection at all times by officials from the Department of Natural Resources.
The Seventh Circuit agreed with the state that these provisions are constitutional under the Supreme Court’s holding in New York v. Burger, which allows reasonable warrantless inspections of closely regulated commercial businesses. A search is considered reasonable under Burger if it meets three requirements:
- there must be a substantial government interest in the regulatory scheme;
- the warrantless inspection must be necessary to further that scheme; and
- limitations on the inspection must ensure a constitutionally adequate substitute for a warrant.
The taxidermists conceded that the warrantless inspection of written taxidermy records was supported by the state’s substantial interest in protecting wildlife, but they argued that there was no corresponding interest supporting the search of taxidermy tags. As the court explained, however, Burger’s first prong requires a substantial government interest in the regulatory scheme as a whole. Accordingly, there was no basis for requiring separate justifications for searching written records as opposed to taxidermy tags, and the state’s interest in protecting wildlife was sufficient to satisfy the first Burger requirement.
The taxidermists’ next argument was that warrantless searches failed the third prong of the Burger test because the statute didn’t define exactly which “taxidermy records” were subject to inspection and, as a result, failed to give sufficient notice of the property to be searched. But the court found this interpretation to be overly narrow and explained that if the Illinois legislature had intended the term “taxidermy records” to mean only written records, it would have explicitly said so in the statute. The court also pointed out that the taxidermists’ interpretation was inconsistent with the statute’s organization and that “removing the tagging requirement from the breadth of inspections also would frustrate the purpose of the Code: regulating the capture and possession of wildlife.”
Finally, the court rejected the taxidermists’ claim that the statute gave inspectors too much discretion because it allowed “any peace officer” to conduct searches. Although broad, the court found this provision to be reasonable and noted that equally broad inspection regulations have been upheld in other jurisdictions.