Hunters Sue Game Wardens for Installing Game Cameras On Private Land without a Warrant

Two landowners and hunters from Tennessee are suing the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for installing trial cameras on their property without their probable cause or a warrant.

According to documents released by the Institute for Justice, Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth are suing “to be free from unreasonable warrantless entries and digital surveillance of their private properties.”

The suit claims that officers from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) are known to enter private land and search for potential hunting violations. They don’t have probable cause to believe a crime is being committed, and they don’t ask permission from either property owners or a court. Instead, they trespass, wander around as they please, and take photos and videos. They even install cameras so they can keep watching the properties 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Hunter Hollingsworth of Camden, TN, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Photography by Nathan Morgan for the Institute of Justice)

“In America, private land is not open to public officers,” said IJ attorney Joshua Windham. “That’s especially true under the Tennessee Constitution, which requires state officers in every corner of the state, from the city to the country, to get a warrant before searching private property.”

“It’s deeply disturbing that I never know whether a state game officer is walking around my land or watching my private activities,” said Terry. “If the state can put cameras on my farm whenever they want, that really destroys the notion that this land is private. And having unannounced visitors walking around our farm during hunting season isn’t just intrusive, it’s dangerous.”

Terry Rainwaters of Camden, TN, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Photography by Nathan Morgan for the Institute of Justice)

The TWRA believes it has the right to conduct this type of surveillance because of a statue known as the “open field doctrine.” The open field doctrine comes from a supreme court case known as Hester v. United States, 265 U.S. 57 (1924). The ruling states that the 4th amendment does not apply to open areas away from one’s dwelling.

The TWRA believes that this gives them the authority to install game cameras and enter private property at will without the need for probable cause or the need to obtain a warrant.

Tennessee Supreme Court has rejected the “open fields” doctrine several times. and attorneys for the plaintiffs believe it will be rejected in this case as well.

“‘No trespassing signs apply to the government too,” said IJ attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “Nobody thinks it’s okay for government agents to set up a tent on your property and watch you day and night. How is installing a camera on your property to do the same thing any different?”

The Institute for Justice posted a video to YouTube laying out the basis of their case.

While the enforcement of game violations is an needed and important part of conservation, it must be balanced with private property rights. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.