'Massive win for property rights' in major warrantless search case

 May 13, 2024

This story was originally published by the WND News Center.

An appeals court in Tennessee has released a "massive win for property rights" in the state by affirming a lower court's decision that game wardens are barred from conducting warrantless searches of private property.

The announcement comes from the Institute for Justice, which fought the case on behalf of landowners Terry Rainwaters and Hunter Hollingsworth.

The Benton County landowners sued when the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency ignored their "No Trespassing" signs and entered their properties to install cameras.

The IJ explained, "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."

The Court of Appeals ruling, from Judge Jeffrey Usman, explained, "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, generally, and in [Article I, Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution], specifically."

He said TWRA’s argument could be compared to warrantless searches conducted by British authorities that motivated 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," the report said.

"TWRA’s abuse of power had to stop," said 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."

The state agents claimed they could trespass with impunity under the ancient federal "open fields" doctrines. That, from 1924, was when the 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.

Like several other state constitutions, the Tennessee document "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," the IJ said.

The landowners were awarded nominal damages of $1 for the violations.

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