I usually only have good things to say about New Hampshire, but leave it to the federal government to tarnish a state’s reputation. “Live free or die” is the state motto, found on every license plate. But the Osceola Vista campground in Conway New Hampshire, is essentially a hunting preserve for cops. The campground is owned by the US Forest Service, who, according to the police officer who crept up on me and my family this past weekend, pays local Waterville Valley police to patrol the campground. This would not be such a bad thing–obviously a police presence can keep people safe in many situations. The part that sparked this review is that police officers are instructed to walk up to people camping, on camp sites that have been rented and paid for, and search for things to arrest them for. This occurs with no warrant, and no probable cause to any camper who happens to have rented a site.
First, here is a little background on illegal searches of rented property. In the U.S. Supreme Court case Stoner v. California the court ruled that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure does apply to rented rooms such as hotel rooms, and that the manager or other employees of the hotel are not legally entitled to allow a search of a renters’ room. According to FindLaw the court ruled that renters have a reasonable expectation of privacy when renting a room, and I see no reason why this would not apply to other rented areas such as a campsite.
No less than a tenant of a house, or the occupant of a room in a boarding house, McDonald v. United States,335 U.S. 451 , a guest in a hotel room is entitled to constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10 .
Because of this Supreme Court decision I can see how the police officer at Osceola Vista Campground would be allowed to walk or drive the roads of the campground, with permission of the campground management, which he had. It would be legal for him to search common areas such as the water pump or bathrooms, and to conduct plain view searches, from the road, without entering upon the rented property: the campsite.
My family’s right to unreasonable search and seizure was violated when the police officer entered our campsite, which we rented, without permission by us, the renters, and without probable cause that any crime had been committed, and without a search warrant. He walked up to us while we were sitting around a fire on our campsite, meaning he had illegally entered our property which we have a reasonable right to remain unsearched. Based on the fact that he was viewing things which would not have been visable from outside of our rented space, this was an illegal search in violation of our Fourth Amendment rights. Since the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that rented spaces such as hotel rooms are protected by the Fourth Amendment, this further suggests that an illegal search took place.
But still, no crime was observed and the police officer eventually left the campsite to conduct other illegal searches of rented property. Upon illegally entering the campsite across from myself and my family, his unreasonable search turned up a joint being rolled by a college aged man. The man was arrested for possession of an illegal drug, marijuana. He was taken to the police station, processed, and returned to the campsite, at which point he warned us about the police, and told us what had happened. This is when it occurred to me that the police officer was not in fact “killing time” while on a 24 hour shift as he claimed, but instead was on a fishing expedition for crimes. The excuse was that the campground pays the Waterville Valley police to patrol the area; but now we know from Stoner v. California that the campsite management has no authority to authorize searches of rented property, just as hotel management has no authority to allow searches of rented hotel rooms.
At this point I must admit that I did not follow my own advice to never talk to the police. While on “vacation mode” with a couple beers in me, I let caution fall by the wayside, and luckily escaped without the police fitting something I said into a crime. Were I to experience this situation again, I would calmly and politely ask the police officer to step off of my rented property, and cease violating my rights. Before we realized that the officer was salivating over the prospect of finding a reason to make an arrest, we were having a normal jovial conversation, which I now recognize to be a police tactic that I warned readers about in “Don’t Talk to Police”.
When the officer mentioned how he would check the sites to make sure there was no underage drinking, the focus of the group turned to me, being the youngest at 24 (and arguably appearing younger). The group jovially asked the officer to guess my age (he guessed 21 or 22). Then the officer made some joke that he wouldn’t check my ID, to which I replied laughing, “I wouldn’t have shown it to you if you did ask”. To this he replied, “Actually showing your ID is the one thing you have to do”, at which point the entire group of 9 adults burst out laughing (we know our rights). Someone threw in a, “What is this Nazi Germany” while I asked the officer if he had heard of the Fourth Amendment. He quickly changed the subject, apparently feeling a little out of his league.
But he had time for one more police entrapment tactic. It was about an hour before one of our group members’ birthday, and the officer asked, “So you’re turning 21?”. Delighted that she had been mistaken for a few years younger, the birthday girl corrected him with “no, 26”. The police officer said, “Damn, that usually works”. Would he have arrested an underage drinker 60 minutes before their 21st birthday? We may never know.
Had we recognized this for what it was at the time, we would have gotten up and warned every other camper on the grounds that the police were walking around, illegally searching; but again with our guards down, we accepted the “it’s a long shift” ruse. And what made me especially angry about the arrest of the camper across the way, was the hassle over a victimless crime, after an illegal search, while they were just trying to have fun camping, and get away for the weekend. The officer walked to his car with the culprit–who possessed an illegal shrub–by his side, no cuffs. Then later, the “criminal” was returned to the site by the officer. So then why was an arrest made if police are supposed to be keeping us safe? If in fact no one was in danger, then why make the arrest at all? If in fact the marijuana smoking posed a danger, then why drop the culprit back at the campsite to continue victimizing? Obviously the officer knew this was a victimless crime, the perpetrator of which posing no threat to those around him.
So this is my review of the campsite, and a warning to anyone who would consider camping at the Osceola Vista Campground, where the Waterville Valley Police creep around illegally searching for crimes. Unless you are 100% sure that you are committing no crime, that you have no contraband at your campsite, or that something you say cannot be construed to incriminate you, then refrain from renting a campsite there. If you are underage and want to drink, or want to smoke marijuana while camping, do not go to this campground. If you are by all accounts a law abiding citizen, stand up for your rights and do not give this campsite your business, because they will treat you like a criminal. Don’t add stress or jail time to your vacation or camping trip. Do yourself a favor, and boycott the Osceola Vista Campground in the name of the Fourth Amendment, and in the name of our Constitutional Rights.