Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · July 10, 2024

ARLINGTON, Va.—After Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth found hidden cameras on their property, they sued the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for violating their rights under the state constitution. Now, with the state declining to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, their victory over warrantless searches is cemented.

Tennessee, along with 6 other states, has rejected the century-old federal “open fields” doctrine. This was the first such suit from the Institute for Justice (IJ), which defends property rights nationwide and is now litigating against open fields doctrines in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Louisiana.

“In 1926, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court announced the open-fields doctrine, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that private land deserves more protection,” said Josh Windham, Co-Director of the Institute for Justice’s Project on the Fourth Amendment. “But for the last century, state game wardens have been ignoring that important decision, roaming Tennesseans’ private land at will. No longer.”

In May, a unanimous Court of Appeals decision found that warrantless searches of private land that is put to “actual use” violate Article 1, Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution. In the decision, Judge Jeffrey Usman wrote that, “TWRA’s contention is a disturbing assertion of power on behalf of the government that stands contrary to the foundations of the search protections against arbitrary governmental intrusions in the American legal tradition…”

“This final victory has been a long time coming,” said Terry Rainwaters. “For too long, TWRA officers have treated my private land like public property. But in Tennessee, our land just means more. It’s part of who we are. And to hear the court say that our land deserves protection from TWRA’s warrantless intrusions makes me proud to be a Tennessean.”

“Finding out you were under illegal surveillance on your private property for months is a hard pill to swallow,” said Hunter Hollingworth. “Thanks to the countless hours of work from Jack Leonard, Josh Windham, and the Institute for Justice, Tennesseans don’t have to swallow that pill anymore! Lots of sacrifices were made by all involved but Bear Bryant said it best: ‘The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards.’”

TWRA thought that its warrantless searches were legal under the century-old federal “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 land the Court deems to be an “open field”—a broad category that, according to a new IJ study, includes about 96% of all land nationwide and at least 92% of land in Tennessee specifically.

The case is another major victory for IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment, which strives to protect one of our foundational property rights: the right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. Later this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear argument in a similar case from two hunting clubs who were subjected to warrantless searches and hidden cameras.

“Property isn’t private if the government can watch you whenever it wants,” said IJ President and General Counsel Scott Bullock. “We are confident that this victory is just the first in what will become a series of wins reinvigorating protections against warrantless searches.”

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