A court has ruled that a state practice giving authorities authority to conduct warrantless trespassing and surveillance on private land is unconstitutional.
Officials with the Institute for Justice described it as a victory.
"The ruling is not just a victory for Benton County (Tennessee) landowners Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth," who sued after the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency ignored their "No Trespassing" signs and conducted operations on their private land, the IJ explained.
"The victory also applies broadly to private land across Tennessee."
"For too long, TWRA officers have treated private land like public property—entering without permission, spying on people without a warrant, and doing it all with no meaningful oversight," explained IJ Attorney Joshua Windham. "Thanks to the court’s ruling, Tennesseans can now rest easy knowing that they’re secure from these sorts of intrusions on their land."
Hollingsworth, in a statement released through his lawyers, said, "The court’s decision to declare TWRA’s constant overreach and abuse of authority unconstitutional is restoring my faith in the justice system."
The decision by the Benton County Circuit Court not only found the law allowing unrestricted state surveillance on private property unconstitutional, it granted the plaintiffs' request for $1 in damages as compensation.
An appeal, if the state chooses that route, would go to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
"The Circuit Court wisely recognized that the Tennessee Constitution prohibits state officials from invading private property on their own say-so," explained IJ Senior Attorney Rob Frommer. "But due to the federal 'open fields' doctrine, game wardens across the nation continue to act like a law unto themselves. The Institute for Justice will keep pushing courts to repudiate that century-old mistake and restore citizens’ right to be secure on their own land."
The dispute arose because the state assumed under a century-old federal "open fields" doctrine that it could install surveillance cameras anywhere on private lands that it considered an "open field."
The state said it couldn't use only a home and its immediate surroundings.
But the new ruling said that belief was in violation of the Tennessee Constitution, which gives landowners more protections that the U.S. Constitution.
Further, the court said the concept amounted to a "general warrant" for searches, and those are unwise.
"It’s a great relief to have the court recognize that searching my property without permission and without a warrant was unconstitutional,” said Terry Rainwaters. “It’s even better to hear that the court doesn’t believe anyone else in Tennessee should have their rights violated in the same way. I’m going to sleep a little better tonight knowing that state officials have to respect my property rights."
The case was part of the IJ's Project on the Fourth Amendment, who seeks to protect property rights for Americans.
WND reported earlier when the case was filed, and then when the judge rejected the state's attempt to get it dismissed.
It was Benton County Circuit Court Judge Charles McGinley who denied TWRA's request for the case to be dismissed.
Rainwaters lives, farms and hunts on the 136 acres he owns along the Big Sandy River in rural Tennessee. He has a "No Trespassing" sign on his gate. "Yet agents of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency ignored that warning, entering his property to set up and retrieve cameras that they used to watch for hunting violations," the Institute for Justice said.
See a video explaining the case: