A Win for Accountability in Tennessee

Andrew Wimer · November 30, 2023

As the Institute for Justice has learned, game wardens in some parts of the country do not have a great deal of respect for private property rights. In Tennessee, we are representing two property owners who found that the government had secretly and without a warrant placed cameras on their land. Pennsylvania game wardens did the same thing to a hunting club; in Virginia, wardens went a step further and simply stole a camera from a property owner and rooted through it looking for offenses.

Our lawsuits seek to establish a simple principle: if the government wants to investigate private property that is clearly marked, it has to get a warrant. And officers sneaking around on private property isn’t just creepy; it’s also dangerous. While hunters are often required to wear bright orange clothing items to prevent accidental shootings, game wardens often wear camouflage during investigations, as they did in both our Tennessee and Virginia cases. The potential for tragedy is high.

But things are changing in Tennessee. First, our district court victory forced the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) to stop warrantless trespassing on private property. We’ve defended that victory at a Tennessee appeals court and expect a ruling in the coming months. The case may ultimately end up at the state’s supreme court.

Second, the Tennessee Lookout recently reported that TWRA officers will now be required to wear body cameras. As the Lookout points out:

These officers possess the same authority to question, detain, arrest, search and seize as local police and sheriff’s departments, but they have received far less scrutiny in their interactions with the public, which often take place in rural, forested and other natural areas — including waterways — away from public view.

The Lookout points to IJ’s lawsuit and another case where officers unlawfully seized birds and property from a master falconer as possibly behind the new move for accountability.

“We’re glad that TWRA is finally taking measures to promote accountability for officers who have long held far too much power to invade private land with far too little oversight,” said IJ Attorney and co-lead of our Project on the Fourth Amendment Josh Windham. “But it shouldn’t have taken a public-interest lawsuit and a court order for TWRA to do the right thing. We’ll continue to watch TWRA—and similar agencies throughout the country—to ensure that landowners’ right to be free from warrantless intrusions is respected.”

The fight in Tennessee and other states will continue, but it is good to see a solid win for holding officers accountable. Game wardens typically have all the same power as police officers but sometimes seem to think that constitutional boundaries don’t apply to them.