Pennsylvania Hunters Set Sights on Ending Government Trespassing

Daniel Nelson
Daniel Nelson  ·  February 1, 2022

When landowners post “No Trespassing” signs on their property, they expect strangers to keep out. After all, owning land means getting to decide who comes onto it. But for two private hunting clubs in Pennsylvania, fences, markers, and signs offer zero protection from government officers freely snooping on private property.  

Tucked away in the northern foothills of the Allegheny Mountains are the Punxsutawney and Pitch Pine Hunting Clubs. The members of these century-old clubs have long enjoyed peace, seclusion, and camaraderie on the private land their families have hunted on for generations.   

Unfortunately, things changed once Pennsylvania Game Commission officers began making regular intrusions onto the clubs’ property, looking for opportunities to issue citations. Even worse, these officers engaged in creepy, unsettling behavior. For instance, Pitch Pine member Jon Mikesell was rattled when he learned a state officer had hidden on Pitch Pine’s land and used binoculars to spy on Jon’s family for days. 

Pitch Pine’s neighbor, the Punxsutawney Hunting Club, has endured similar intrusions. When one member asked why an officer was on Punxsutawney’s land so often, the officer responded that because Punxsutawney has more members than other clubs in the area, he had a better chance of catching a hunting violation there. 

These intrusions would be surprising to most Americans, who might assume the government needs probable cause and a warrant before it invades their private property. But nearly a century ago, the U.S. Supreme Court created the “open fields” doctrine, carving a huge hole in the Constitution in the process. According to this doctrine, which was created during Prohibition and massively expanded during the War on Drugs, private property owners lack any Fourth Amendment protection for land beyond the home and its immediately surrounding yard. In 2007, in a close vote, Pennsylvania’s high court adopted the open fields doctrine in a case called Commonwealth v. Russo.  

But Russo is wrong, especially when it comes to the Pennsylvania Constitution, which protects “persons, houses, papers and possessions” from warrantless intrusions. When those words were written, people plainly understood “possessions” to encompass all land that a person encloses and makes their own, something that Punxsutawney and Pitch Pine members have painstakingly done.  

These protections for private possessions are vital—not just for hunters but for all landowners in Pennsylvania. No one can feel safe on their land with the specter of officers on the hunt for wrongdoing hiding in their bushes. And as government officers’ capacity to search using advanced technology skyrockets, fighting against the government’s warrantless intrusions onto private property is more important than ever—just ask IJ clients Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth, who found HD cameras that could monitor them 24/7 hidden on their Tennessee properties.   

Members of Punxsutawney and Pitch Pine are fed up with these intrusions, so IJ filed suit on their behalf to take on Russo and the government officials who trespass with impunity. Setting proper precedent in the Keystone State would be a major victory in rolling back the open fields doctrine nationwide. This effort is also part of IJ’s recently launched Project on the Fourth Amendment, through which we will protect all Americans’ rights to be secure in their persons and property.  

Respecting landowners means respecting their privacy and property rights. That rule goes for everyone—including nosy game commission officers.

 Daniel Nelson is an IJ Law & Liberty Fellow. 

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