Tennessee Property Owners Score Early Win in Lawsuit Against Warrantless Trespassing, Surveillance on Private Land

Hunter Hollingsworth and Terry Rainwaters of Camden, TN, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Photography by Nathan Morgan for the Institute of Justice)
Today, Benton County Circuit Court Judge Charles McGinley denied the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s (TWRA) motion to dismiss a lawsuit from Tennessee landowners Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth. They joined forces with the Institute for Justice (IJ) in April to sue TWRA for ignoring their “No Trespassing” signs by entering and installing cameras on their land. Today’s ruling means they are one step closer to vindicating the property and privacy rights guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution.

“Private land is not open to public officers,” said IJ Attorney Joshua Windham. “We look forward to Tennessee’s courts declaring once and for all that the Tennessee Constitution does not allow the government to conduct warrantless surveillance of private property.”

TWRA believes that its warrantless searches are legal under the century-old “open fields” doctrine. In 1924, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not protect any land beyond the home and its immediately surrounding area. The Court reaffirmed the doctrine in 1984 when it held that property owners have no “reasonable expectation of privacy” on any private lands the Court deems to be an “open field.”

But that is not the law in Tennessee. Article I, Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution protects each individual’s “persons, houses, papers and possessions” from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Since 1926, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that this provision protects private land from warrantless intrusions. By entering Terry’s and Hunter’s property and installing surveillance cameras in their trees, TWRA is conducting unconstitutional warrantless searches.

With the denial of TWRA’s motion to dismiss, the case will now proceed to discovery and a decision on the merits.

About the Institute for Justice: Through strategic litigation, training, communication, activism and research, the Institute for Justice advances a rule of law under which individuals can control their destinies as free and responsible members of society. IJ litigates to secure economic liberty, educational choice, private property rights, freedom of speech and other vital individual liberties, and to restore constitutional limits on the power of government.
Source: Institute for Justice