VITAL POLICY – U.S. Supreme Court Rejects “Community Caretaking” Doctrine in Fourth Amendment Case, Tennessee Court to Address Warrantless Surveillance by TWRA

Two cases involving unreasonable search by government authorities have caught the attention of constitutional activists on a national scale. The first, decided unanimously in the U.S. Supreme Court, involves the entry into a private residence and the subsequent confiscation of firearms by law enforcement under the “community caretaking” doctrine. The second involves warrantless video surveillance by TWRA officers on a Benton County, Tennessee farm under the doctrine of “open fields”. The latter case remains undecided.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the U.S, Supreme Court in a unanimous decision in CANIGLIA v. STROM, holds that the government cannot make warrantless entry into a residence to carry out “community caretaking” operations. In this case, law enforcement had entered a home without a warrant and without a clear emergency to confiscate handguns. The decision reinforces Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

In a media release issued by the Institute for Justice (IJ),

Today, the Court confirmed that the government cannot enter someone’s home without a warrant simply for the sake of convenience. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed that people’s property rights cannot be trumped by an extremely broad, vague concept of ‘community caretaking.”

IJ President Scott Bullock

Circuit Court in Benton County, Tennessee has a pending case in which Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) officers conducted warrantless surveillance of farms with multiple video cameras under the doctrine of “open fields”, a judicial exception established about 100 years ago that presumably circumvents the constitutional requirement for law enforcement to obtain a judicially approved warrant to trespass and search private property that is external to a residence or building, such as farmland.

In a complaint filed by the landowners, the court is being asked to provide declaratory and injunctive relief. Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth are asking the Circuit Court in Benton County to declare that the Tennessee Constitution, Article I, Section 7 applies to private property outside the home and that defendant TWRA be barred from unwarranted trespassing and surveillance on their private property.

Article I, Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution provides:

That the people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions, from unreasonable searches and seizures; and that general warrants, whereby an officer may be commanded to search suspected places, without evidence of the fact committed, or to seize any person or persons not named, whose offences are not particularly described and supported by evidence, are dangerous to liberty and ought not be granted.”

For an in-depth look at the case, court documents, video, background information, photographs, and media releases, go to the IJ website, link provided here.

Two bills aimed at curbing the practice of unwarranted surveillance in Tennessee were rejected by legislators in the most recent legislative session.

Source: David Seal is a retired Jefferson County educator, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain, property rights, education, and broadband accessibility on the state level.