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East Feliciana Parish timber land owner sues the state, believes his Fourth Amendment rights are being violated

4 months 3 days 32 minutes ago Friday, March 15 2024 Mar 15, 2024 March 15, 2024 7:02 PM March 15, 2024 in News

EAST FELICIANA PARISH - Thomas Manuel was not unfamiliar with Fourth Amendment lawsuits by property owners, but he never thought he would actually file one.

On Tuesday, Manuel, a consulting forester with land in East Feliciana Parish, served the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) with a lawsuit, and he's only asking for a dollar, but he is also asking for a whole lot more: private property rights.

"There is no more pure law than the Constitution," Manuel said. "I'm merely asking to have the Constitution enforced as it regards to private property rights."

Game wardens stepped onto Manuel's timber land in East Feliciana Parish two separate times in December, the first on Dec. 6 and the second on Dec. 30. His first encounter with game wardens was unpleasant. Manuel asked a wildlife agent what their probable cause was, to which the agent replied, according to Manuel, "The mere fact that you are hunting is cause enough for me."

When game wardens showed up the second time, Manuel received a text from his brother, reading, "The game wardens are back." Manuel said he rushed over.

Three other states — Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Virginia — currently have active Fourth Amendment cases like Manuel's. The consulting forester said that because he reads forestry publications, he's particularly familiar with what his rights are as a timber land owner, as an American and as a Louisiana resident.

"I would not have done anything had they not come back the second time, but that really felt a little bit like harassment," Manuel said as he recollected those December days. "But when they did come back the second time, I was pretty up to speed on my rights ... For the last couple of years, I have known people in other states have been pushing back to help secure their Fourth Amendment rights. I had been hoping it would happen in Louisiana, I just had not hoped, I had not wanted it to be me."

In December, Manuel reached out to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, for representation. Multiple times, Manuel was adamant about the fact that this lawsuit has nothing to do with himself and everything to do with property rights. When Manuel learned he had to file some form of a dollar amount with the suit, he asked what the lowest number could be: that's how he settled on the price of a singular dollar.

"This is a case that implicates 95% of all privately-owned land in Louisiana," said Josh Windham, one of the attorneys at Institute for Justice representing Manuel. "The basic question in the case is: Is private land entitled to constitutional protection from warrantless searches? ... If police want to jump through your bedroom window and start rooting through your house, they have to get a warrant to do that ... But if police want to jump over your fence and start roaming around your land and surveilling you, right now, the law says they don't have to get a warrant to do that."

Manuel believes the core of the problem lies within the training game wardens receive.

"If you were to ask them (high schoolers who become game wardens), 'Is it legal and proper for government law enforcement to go on private property, look through private possessions without a search warrant,' I think any of them would say, 'No that's not legal. We just learned about that in history class,'" Manuel stated. "And yet, they go to the Wildlife Enforcement Academy and they come out after graduation, and they have been taught that that doesn't apply to them. I think it does apply to them."

While the LDWF has about a month to respond to the lawsuit, it could be a long road ahead if the case ever makes it to the Louisiana Supreme Court. If there is one thing that is certain as the lawsuit begins for Manuel and the Institute for Justice, it's that the consulting forester doesn't want to hurt anyone. He said he only took up his career as a consulting forester after he saw the LDWF at a career fair in high school. The two branches of the LDWF — biological research and wildlife, game warden enforcement — only one Manuel has a problem with, and he's looking to fix it.

"The warden drove to the end of that road, and the gate was open," Manuel said. "I leave my gate open when I'm here, but that's not an invitation for the government, it's just an open gate."

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