Judges Rule Warrantless Searches on Private Land Unconstitutional in Tennessee

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A recent court ruling in Tennessee restricts some of the powers that the state’s game wardens have traditionally held when policing hunters and anglers on private land. According to that ruling, which was handed down by a Court of Appeals on Thursday, wildlife officers can no longer enter private property to monitor, look for, or otherwise investigate wildlife crimes without a warrant.

Although it might surprise some Americans, entering and surveilling private lands without obtaining a warrant or notifying the landowner have long been standard practices for many state fish and game agencies. In most states that allow this, game wardens have more power than police and other law enforcement officers when it comes to warrantless searches. Among other privileges, this statutory authority permits game wardens to enter privately owned lands without permission, and to conceal themselves while investigating suspected violations of hunting and fishing laws. These powers are summarized in a Tennessee law that allows officers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency “to go upon any property, outside of buildings, posted or otherwise” in order to enforce wildlife laws.  

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In its unanimous decision, a panel of three judges determined that the state’s game wardens were taking these powers too far, and that the current statute allowing for warrantless searches on posted private property is unconstitutional as applied by TWRA. The judges even drew comparisons between TWRA’s past actions and the tyrannies colonial Americans were subjected to under British rule.

“The TWRA searches, which it claims are reasonable, bear a marked resemblance to the arbitrary discretionary entries of customs officials more than two centuries ago in colonial Boston,” the judges wrote in their decision. “The TWRA’s contention is a disturbing assertion of power on behalf of the government that stands contrary to the foundations of the search protections against arbitrary governmental intrusions in the American legal tradition, generally, and in Tennessee, specifically.”

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed in Benton County Circuit Court by two Tennessee landowners, Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth, who claimed that TWRA officers conducted multiple warrantless searches on their properties, ignored “No Trespassing” signs, and even installed trail cameras there. With legal representation from the Institute for Justice, Rainwaters and Hollingsworth argued that these actions violated their rights under Article 1, Section 7 of the state constitution.

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In defending the agency’s actions, attorneys representing TWRA argued that because so much hunting takes place on private land in Tennessee, officers would be unable to protect the state’s wildlife resources if they couldn’t patrol these lands. They also cited the “Open Fields Doctrine,” a federal precedent set during the Prohibition era that permits law enforcement agents to surveil rural lands, and which states that Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures only apply to someone’s home and not their surrounding lands.

In March 2022, the circuit court ruled in favor of the landowners, issuing a decision that the Institute for Justice called “a victory for property owners statewide.” The public interest law firm is also engaged in a separate lawsuit that was filed on similar grounds by two Pennsylvania hunting clubs.

The TWRA appealed the circuit court’s March ruling in April 2022, which kicked off the lengthy appeals process that concluded last week. The agency now has 60 days to appeal the more recent decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court. It’s unclear if the TWRA plans to appeal the ruling.

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