Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · May 10, 2024

JACKSON, Tenn.—Late yesterday, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson affirmed that the Tennessee Constitution bars game wardens from conducting warrantless searches of private property. The ruling upholds a circuit court victory for Benton County landowners Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth. Terry and Hunter sued with the Institute for Justice (IJ) after the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) ignored their “No Trespassing” signs by entering and installing cameras on their land. The victory applies broadly to all private land Tennesseans have put to “actual use,” whether by fencing, farming, posting, gating, hunting, fishing, camping, or otherwise.

“This decision is a massive win for property rights in Tennessee,” said IJ Attorney and Elfie Gallun Fellow in Freedom and the Constitution Joshua Windham. “TWRA claimed unfettered power to put on full camouflage, invade people’s land, roam around as it pleases, take photos, record videos, sift through ponds, spy on people from behind bushes—all without consent, a warrant, or any meaningful limits on their power. This decision confirms that granting state officials unfettered power to invade private land is anathema to Tennesseans’ most basic constitutional rights.”

Judge Jeffrey Usman wrote for the unanimous Court of Appeals thatTWRA’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, generally, and in [Article I, Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution], specifically.” Usman noted that TWRA’s argument could be compared to warrantless searches conducted by British authorities that motived the American Revolution. Usman also rejected the idea that rural Tennesseans deserve any less protection against government intrusion than people in urban areas, explaining that the “Tennessee Constitution does not disfavor actual uses [of property] more commonly associated with rural areas.”

“This decision 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 means something to us. 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.”

“TWRA’s abuse of power had to stop,” said Hunter Hollingsworth. “For as long as I can remember, these officers have acted like a law unto themselves. But nobody—not even a game warden—is above the Constitution, and yesterday’s decision makes that crystal clear. I’d like to thank the Institute for Justice for helping us fight this battle for so many years, and my local attorney Jack Leonard, who has been by my side on this case since day one.”

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.

“Fortunately, the Tennessee Constitution provides greater protection than what the U.S. Supreme Court currently says about the Fourth Amendment,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “The Tennessee Constitution, like several other state constitutions, protects ‘possessions’ from ‘unreasonable searches.’ The term ‘possessions’ plainly covers private land, and it’s heartening to see the Court of Appeals reject the federal rule and reaffirm Tennesseans’ cherished right to be secure on that land.”

In addition to declaring TWRA’s warrantless searches unconstitutional, the court upheld Terry’s and Hunter’s request for $1 in damages as compensation for the violation of their state constitutional rights. TWRA now has 60 days to appeal the decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

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. IJ is currently defending landowners’ rights to be secure from similar warrantless intrusions in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court likely to hear argument later this year.

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