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Small Business Owner Sues to Stop Ohio’s “Whenever, Wherever” Inspections

Asking officers to follow the Fourth Amendment and get a warrant should never be a crime

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Jeremy Bennett literally built his business from the ground up, teaching himself taxidermy and deer processing and then constructing his shop just yards from his home in Logan, Ohio. The shop is a private space, and Jeremy allows customers in by appointment only. He even has signs to that effect posted in and around the shop.

But to Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) officers, none of that matters. ODNR officers demand the right to inspect Jeremy’s shop—top to bottom—whenever they please. Last year, when Jeremy asked an officer to return when his taxidermy shop was open, he was charged with a crime and threatened with jail time for impeding an investigation.

But people do not give up their constitutional right to privacy when they open a business. Jeremy has the right to ask officers to get a warrant before they enter and inspect his business. Represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), Jeremy filed a federal lawsuit this morning asking the court to hold that ODNR’s warrantless inspections violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“As it stands, ODNR officers have free rein to enter Jeremy’s shop, look around wherever they please, and stay as long they want,” said IJ Attorney Joshua Windham. “But that’s unconstitutional. Jeremy’s shop is a private space—his wife and young children even filter in and out on a regular basis. If ODNR officers want to barge into Jeremy’s shop without his consent, the Fourth Amendment requires that they get a warrant first.”

“My shop and the home where my children are schooled are right next to each other and I’m concerned about people coming by unannounced, whether they are law enforcement or not,” said Jeremy. “I don’t feel that just because you open up a business you give up your constitutional right to property and privacy.”

For years, Jeremy had a smooth relationship with ODNR officers. Taxidermy and deer processing are not regulated by Ohio, which only requires that Jeremy and others keep records of the animals they work on. However, after a personnel change, Jeremy found that inspections became more intrusive. He was even told by an officer once that, “Everybody does something wrong, I just have to find out what you’ve done.”

During peak hunting season, Jeremy closes his taxidermy space and works solely on deer processing. After an hour-long inspection in December 2020, an officer asked to enter the closed taxidermy area. Jeremy asked him to return in a few weeks when he had resumed working on taxidermy, and the officer left without objecting. But a few months later, Jeremy was criminally prosecuted and threatened with jail time for “refusing” the officer warrantless entry into his taxidermy shop. Jeremy ultimately agreed to plead no contest and pay a fine of $150.

Neither Jeremy, nor any other business owner, should have to live in fear of criminal prosecution just for asking a government official to come back later. The Fourth Amendment protects non-public areas of businesses from unreasonable searches. And while the Supreme Court has created a narrow exception for a small number of “closely regulated” businesses, all Jeremy is required to do is keep records.

“If a recordkeeping requirement is all it takes to justify warrantless inspections of Jeremy’s business, then few if any businesses would be protected by the Fourth Amendment,” said IJ Attorney Joe Gay. “Fortunately, the Supreme Court has sent a strong message that what’s happening to Jeremy violates the Fourth Amendment, and we look forward to explaining that in court.”

The Institute for Justice is a non-profit public interest law firm that protects property rights nationwide. This case is the first filed since IJ launched its Project on the Fourth Amendment. The project strives to protect one of America’s foundational property rights: The right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. IJ also has a long history of protecting rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment and similar state constitutional amendments. IJ is defending security deposit box owners whose boxes were seized by the FBI, renters subject to warrantless home inspections, and property owners who had government cameras installed on their land.

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