A court recently rejected the Forest Service’s attempt to criminally convict a defendant for maintaining a hunting cabin on Forest Service land even though the Forest Service had previously approved of the cabin’s existence. The defendant maintained a cabin on the Hiawatha National Forest approximately 200 feet away from his private property. The Forest Service charged him with violating a federal regulation which prohibits maintaining an authorized structure within a National Forest. The court refused to convict him, holding that a person had to have reason to believe he was violating the regulation in order to be convicted of violating it and in this case, the agency had given the defendant reason to believe the cabin was legally in place.
The cabin originally had been built in the 1950s by a close friend of the defendant’s parents, who believed it was on their private inholding within the Forest. The defendant regularly used the cabin to hunt deer since he returned from serving in the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, the cabin burned down and Forest Service employees helped him clear the debris and asked him to rebuild it 25 feet east of its existing site “to ensure that the new cabin was squarely on private property,” which he did.
In 2014, a Forest Service LEO, using Google Earth in his office, noticed the cabin. He then conducted a survey which showed it was on Forest Service land. Rather than make any effort to first communicate with the individual who maintained the cabin, the Forest Service set up a “sting-like operation” on the opening day of deer season, “swarmed” into the camp area and issued a ticket to the defendant.
The court found that defendant, who is a 69-year old retired Purple Heart recipient, had no reason to believe he was in violation of the regulation before he was ticketed. The court noted that the Forest Service had actually “given him reason to believe that he was in full compliance with the regulation.” Thus, the court held that convicting the defendant without him having any basis for believing he had violated the law “smacked of unfairness.” Finally, the court also criticized the Forest Service for pursuing criminal charges given the facts and the defendant’s efforts to resolve the matter after being ticketed.