CLEARFIELD, Pa.—Last week, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) handed over evidence that it spied on a private hunting club using a secretly installed trail camera. The camera photographed Punxsutawney Hunting Club members who had no idea they were being watched and did so without a warrant. This information was revealed as part of a lawsuit the club, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), filed in December 2021 against the PGC for its warrantless searches of private land.
Pennsylvania game wardens think they can get away with treating private land like public property due to an arcane legal rule called the “open fields” doctrine, under which private land currently gets no constitutional protection from warrantless searches.
“This sort of intrusion is a perfect illustration of how dangerous the open fields doctrine is for property rights in Pennsylvania,” said IJ Attorney Joshua Windham. “It was bad enough that the state treated our clients’ private land like public property. Learning that they have been conducting secret camera surveillance only increases the outrage.”
The Punxsutawney Hunting Club consists of ordinary Pennsylvanians who desire and expect privacy on their own land. They were in shock at the information the club’s lawsuit has already produced.
“It’s private property up there. I don’t see how anybody has the right to film me,” said Punxsutawney Hunting Club member Mark Miller, one of several club members whom PGC surveillance captured in images the government handed over as part of the suit. “It shouldn’t be happening.”
Pennsylvania wildlife officers treat private land like public property because of the 2007 ruling Commonwealth v. Russo, where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the state constitution’s provision against warrantless searches does not apply to private land. This flatly misreads the Pennsylvania Constitution, which has unique text protecting “possessions”—including private land—from such intrusions.
For Frank Stockdale, the president of the club’s board, the camera surveillance intensified what was already a deep discomfort with the PGC’s practices.
“We never had a clue it would be as obscene as having game cameras spying on us. It’s outrageous to think someone’s taking pictures of you on your own private property,” he said. “It’s not very becoming of our government that we have this stuff going on in our state.”
The Institute for Justice is the nation’s leading advocate for property rights. This case is part of IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment, which seeks to vindicate the right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. IJ is currently litigating on behalf of property owners in Tennessee who had government cameras installed on their land, an Ohio taxidermist who was regularly subjected to warrantless inspections, and security deposit box owners whose boxes were raided by the FBI.