DNR rangers, wardens can record conversations without consent
Interactions with people on state land often taped for safety, evidence
STOUGHTON, Wis. — Will Johnson has stopped at a number of campgrounds in his cross-country trek before settling in at Lake Kegonsa for the night. He has spent the better part of the spring driving himself and his supplies from park to park, forest to forest and campsite to campsite.
“I never even noticed anything that would look like a recording device,” Johnson said.
The thought of a park official carrying a recording device doesn’t sit well with Johnson, someone who is trying to escape modern-day technology and surveillance for some peace and privacy.
“Even in the middle of nowhere in nature, you’re still going to have to worry about the government and privacy issues and your own solitude,” Johnson said. “You can’t get solitude really, wherever you go.”
Jeremy Plautz leads law enforcement training and recruitment for the Department of Natural Resources.
“Typically, recordings can be used for any variety of reasons,” Plautz said.
Plautz pointed out recording devices have been used by rangers and wardens since VHS tapes and cassettes were the means of playing back an interaction. He said since technology has improved, the process has gotten easier. Recording devices are now pocket-sized. Plautz said some rangers have dash cameras mounted on their vehicles, and a few even have cameras small enough they can wear.
“It provides a clear account of what occurred that’s not disputable by either side,” Plautz said. “And it can be used as evidence in court if necessary. It gives us a very accurate picture of what happened.”
Under state law, any recording only needs “one-party consent.” In the case of DNR conversations, that means staff members recording conversations do not need the other person’s permission to do so.
Plautz said his officers are law enforcement and use the recording devices like police would. He said there is no policy mandating recordings or even guiding a universal protocol on doing so, but rangers and wardens decide for themselves when to record.
“It’s officer discretion. Some contacts are recorded, some aren’t. So there’s nothing that says one will be and one won’t be,” Plautz said.
For Plautz, it’s better safe than sorry, and he would rather give his staff the chance to have proof.
“Do we encounter uncooperative individuals? Yeah,” Plautz said. “And if we have a recording of that, it can help us to give a clear account of what occurred.”