The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will appeal a judicial panel’s ruling that searches without justification on private grounds to enforce hunting, fishing and wildlife laws are unconstitutional.
The statement last month concluded by the panel of three judges that TWRA’s searches without authorization or notice to property owners — and without appearing in court to prove probable cause of a crime — gave rise to an “unacceptable risk of abusive searches.” The practice was “unconstitutional, illegal and unenforceable,” the March 22 order concluded.
In April 2020, two men from Benton County are filing charges alleging that: TWRA entered their property and secretly watched them on a number of occasions. Monitoring and patrolling their land was an invasion of privacy and violation of their rights, they claimed.
The men — Hunter Hollingsworth and Terry Rainwaters — said TWRA agents crouched in the bushes, secretly recording their activities. The agency does not keep records of when and how often officers enter private property. TWRA officers do not require a supervisor’s approval before entering private property, and there are no rules limiting how long officers may patrol private property. Hollingsworth and Rainwaters are represented by the Institute of Justicewho has challenged similar laws in other states.
TWRA officials have argued that they must have the flexibility to patrol private property in order to do their jobs. The agency’s mission is to protect wildlife and enforce Tennessee’s hunting, fishing, and boating regulations. The vast majority of hunting in Tennessee takes place on private property, and wildlife is not entrusted to public lands, TWRA attorneys noted.
TWRA attorneys also cited a long-standing U.S. Supreme Court precedent known as the “open fields doctrinestating that private property owners have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” on property that is considered an open field — land outside the immediate vicinity of a homeowner’s home and yard.
The panel of three judges — convened under a 2021 state law requiring a judge from each of Tennessee’s three major divisions to hear the state law — concluded that the Tennessee Constitution goes beyond the US Constitution. Article 1, Section 7 of the state constitution provides a “broader guarantee of security for an individual’s property than its federal counterpart,” they wrote. The judge-cited Tennessee Supreme Court precedent finding only “wild or uncultivated lands” that were not farmed, fenced, or inhabited are excluded from that protection.
The panel also concluded that the Tennessee law Giving TWRA the right to enter private land amounted to a “general order.” “General injunctions are a danger to liberty and should not be issued,” the court ruled.
TWRA attorneys announced on Wednesday that they intend to appeal the ruling to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.