CAMDEN, Tennessee — Hunter Hollingsworth didn’t understand at first that it was a surveillance camera beaming the sun glint from a tall tree branch about a mile past the no-entry sign marking his family’s remote property in western Tennessee.
But something about the shine made him stop his truck. By the time he climbed up to examine it, grabbed the gadget in the tree, drove home, and examined a SIM card, Hollingsworth understood that there was a surveillance device that had been trained to record his movements for months in a 24-7 live feed that was viewable to officials at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, or TWRA.
Hollingsworth’s discovery in 2018 and the chain of events that followed sparked a years-long legal battle with state conservationists over his right to privacy free from government interference and video surveillance on his own property.
It’s a battle, said Hollingsworth, that has taken a lot out over the past four years — his relationship with his girlfriend tense at times, as he slowly saw the spark of anger he first felt burn when he saw images of himself and his friends. in the secret government surveillance footage on the SIM card. Hollingsworth’s protracted legal battle may soon reach a climax.
A panel of three judges, convened in Benton County last December, weighs Hollingsworth’s challenge to the constitutionality of TWRA’s practice of conducting warrantless patrols, searches and surveillance on private property.
It is a practice rooted in a Tennessee law that gives TWRA the right to search and monitor private property to enforce hunting, fishing, and wildlife laws — an authority not explicitly extended to any other state or local law enforcement, including county sheriffs or local law enforcement.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials say a U.S. Supreme Court over “open field” doctrine gives Tennesseans no privacy expectations, but attorneys for Hunter Hollingsworth and Terry Rainwaters say the policy violates the Tennessee Constitution.
TWRA officers may go “on any property, outside buildings, placed or otherwise,” the law says.
Hollingsworth — along with his neighbor, Terry Rainwaters, who claims TWRA also engages in searches without justification of his property — have asked the panel of state judges, convened under a new law requiring panels for state constitution claims, to determine the law unconstitutional.
Represented by attorneys at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-oriented nonprofit law firm, the pair have argued that TWRA’s unauthorized forays into private property violate Article 1, Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitutionwhich in part says:
“People will be safe in their persons, homes, papers and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures.”
“If they can come at will, when they want and where they want, what is the value of private property?” Holllingsworth said in an interview earlier this month.
“If they go on private property, they should get a search warrant. They abuse their authority and no one can control it. If bait hunting (illegally luring game with bait) is so much worse than trafficking children or other serious crimes that require a warrant, then they need a warrant.”
United States Supreme Court and the Tennessee Constitution
TWRA officials last week said they will not comment on pending lawsuits, but in legal documents and affidavits filed in the case, conservationists said they needed the flexibility to enter private property to do their jobs. The agency’s mission is to protect wildlife and enforce hunting, fishing and boating regulations.
Because 90 percent of the land in Tennessee is privately owned and where the majority of hunting takes place, TWRA agents can’t do their jobs without patrolling private property, TWRA attorneys have argued.
TWRA has also cited an established US Supreme Court precedent known as the “open fields” doctrine. The doctrine says that property owners have no “reasonable expectation of privacy” on private land that is considered an open field — property that is outside the immediate vicinity of an owner’s home and yard, such as a field of crops. outside the farmer’s farm.
The US Supreme Court has ruled that unwarranted searches in open fields do not violate the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Joshua Windham, an attorney at the Institute for Justice who represents Hollingsworth and Rainwaters, said the Tennessee Constitution offers its own protections and that the law giving TWRA the right to unauthorized access to private property clearly violates the state constitution.
“It’s a law enforcement agency that believes it has complete discretion,” Windham said, noting that no other law enforcement agency in the state has the same powers to enter private property without a warrant, as TWRA has outlined in state law.
If they go on private property, they must have a warrant. They abuse their authority and no one can control it.
An armed robbery, then allegations of theft
Hollingsworth hunts on the 90-acre property, a mix of swampy habitat, fields and tree cover, which has been in his family’s possession since his teens.
The site is only accessible through a gate marked ‘private property’ leading into a primitive gravel driveway, first through his neighbours’ property before reaching the derelict land his father bought 25 years ago.
The land is set aside purely for hunting and recreation, Hollingsworth said. He and his friends have hunted rabbits, turkeys, deer, ducks and raccoons there since his teens, he said. He and his girlfriend have also camped on the property from time to time.
The camera, Hollingsworth said, was an acute invasion of privacy, capable of capturing footage of him being intimate with his girlfriend, relieving himself outdoors and partying with his friends.
But what happened after he discovered the covert surveillance causes Hollingsworth more trouble.
Weeks after he discovered the secret camera, he heard a knock on the door of his house, located in a separate lot.
It was early in the day and Hollingworth and his girlfriend were not fully dressed. Outside were at least half a dozen men dressed in khaki pants and body armor, including at least one armed with an assault rifle, Hollingsworth said. Frightened, Hollingsworth’s girlfriend ran to the bedroom.
They were both detained and arrested.
Hollingsworth was charged with six counts of illegal hunting of waterfowl, including illegal luring of game birds.
Weeks after Hollingsworth discovered the secret camera, TWRA agents came to his house armed and arrested him for illegally hunting waterfowl, a charge he denies. Officers also accused him of stealing the security camera he found on his property.
He and his girlfriend were also charged with a 7th count: stealing the surveillance camera secretly installed on his property.
The camera was installed, according to court documents, after US Fish & Wildlife Service agents contacted TWRA agents who alleged Hollingsworth was violating federal game bird regulations. Federal authorities received a warrant on camera. In court files, TWRA officials noted that the warrant was unnecessary.
Over the course of the lawsuit Hollingsworth and his neighbor later filed, dozens of video and photographic evidence emerged showing examples where TWRA agents armed with their own cameras and audio recording equipment — and sometimes crouched behind bushes — saw Hollingsworth and friends filmed.
While athletes should wear bright clothing as a signal of their presence to other fighters, TWRA officials are not, creating a potentially dangerous situation during covert surveillance, Windham said. Video made by TWRA agents shows them in the firing line for fighters.
Some videos captured TWRA agents trudging through the isolated Hollingsworth site and recount their surveillance of corn kernels near duck blinds or wet fields with remains of corn on the cob.
Audio evidence filed in the case has documented at least one occasion when Hollingsworth was on his property when confronted by TWRA officials.
“Hunter, stop for a second, okay?” the TWRA agent said to Hollingsworth. “We have some things to talk about. Put down your bucket… We’ve got some things to talk about. There’s no point in getting angry.”
“It’s no use coming here every time I hunt,” Hollingsworth replied. “Nobody invites you.”
“When you bought your hunting license, you invited me,” the agent replied.
Hollingsworth later pleaded guilty to one charge of wildlife lure – a claim he still denies. He lost his hunting license for three years. The charges against his friends and girlfriend were dropped.
“I’m not saying I’ve never done anything wrong,” he said. “But they threatened to sue my girlfriend because she lives with me. She would have lost her job because she has to travel for work. She has nothing to do with hunting.”