Can Gov’t Put Spy Cameras on Your Property Without a Warrant?

‘If the state can put cameras on my farm whenever they want, that really destroys the notion that this land is private…’

Lawsuit Challenges Tennessee Officials for Putting Cameras on Private Land

Terry Rainwaters / PHOTO: Nathan Morgan via Institute for Justice

(Michael Barnes, Liberty Headlines) The Fourth Amendment forbids warrantless searches, but Tennessee wildlife officials think it’s perfectly fine to accomplish the same thing by trespassing onto private land and setting up cameras.

A new lawsuit is attempting to stop the practice.

“In America, private land is not open to public officers,” said Joshua Windham, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that advocates for private property rights.

If successful, the case would apply to all Tennesseans, but it centers on two rural property-owners, Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth.

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Both live, farm and hunts on large tracts along the Big Sandy River in Camden, Tenn. Like many farms and rural properties,  they post “no trespassing” signs to discourage unwelcome visitors, including poachers.

But agents from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency ignored the signs and intruded on the properties to conceal and retrieve cameras in an effort to find hunting violations.

According to the lawsuit, Rainwaters and Hollingsworth discovered the cameras had been installed in late 2017 after previously witnessing officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency who appeared to be spying on them without probable cause.

“It’s deeply disturbing that I never know whether a state game officer is walking around my land or watching my private activities,” Rainwaters said in an IJ statement. “If the state can put cameras on my farm whenever they want, that really destroys the notion that this land is private.”

The agency claimed to be exploiting a loophole in property laws that allows for warrantless searches of “open fields.”

Ironically, the Tennessee Constitution provides greater protections than the U.S. Supreme Court in this area, and the state’s Supreme Court has rejected the “open fields” doctrine several times.

But it’s taking another lawsuit to make those protections stick.

“Nobody thinks it’s OK for government agents to set up a tent on your property and watch you day and night,” said IJ attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “How is installing a camera on your property to do the same thing any different?”