Lawsuit filed against state wildlife agency over covert surveillance on private land – Tennessee Lookout

Camden, Tenn. Hunter Hollingsworth did not realize, at first, that it was a surveillance camera shining in the sun from a high tree branch a mile away from the trespassing sign of his family’s remote estate in West Tennessee.

But something about the flashing made him stop his truck. By the time he climbed up to investigate, picked up the tool in the tree, went home and checked the SIM card, Hollingsworth realized there was a monitor that had been trained to capture his movements for months in a live broadcast that could be viewed 24/7. For officials of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, or TWRA.

The discovery of Hollingsworth in 2018, and the series of events that followed, led to a years-long legal battle with state wildlife officials over his right to privacy-free from government interference and video surveillance on his private property.

It’s a battle that has proven all-consuming over the past four years — straining his relationship with his girlfriend at times while continuing to slowly burn the spark of rage he first felt when he saw pictures of him and his friends on secret government surveillance, Hollingsworth said. Screenshots on the SIM card. Hollingsworth’s long legal battle may soon reach its climax.

A panel of three judges, meeting in Benton County last December, is examining Hollingsworth’s challenge to the constitutionality of the TWRA’s practice of conducting warrantless patrols, searches and surveillance of private property.

It is a practice rooted in Tennessee Law TWRA grants the right to search and monitor private property in order to enforce hunting, fishing, and wildlife laws – an authority that does not expressly extend to any other state or local law enforcement, including county sheriffs or local police.

Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency officials say the US Supreme Court’s “open field” doctrine does not give Tennessee any expectations about privacy, but attorneys Hunter Hollingsworth and Terry Ryan Waters say the policy conflicts with the Tennessee constitution.

The law states that TWRA officers may “seize any property, outside buildings, declared or otherwise.”

Hollingsworth—along with his neighbor, Terry Rainwaters, who claims the TWRA has engaged in warrantless searches on his property as well—have asked the state’s panel of judges, meeting under a new law requiring the commissions to claim state constitution claims, to find the law unconstitutional.

Represented by attorneys from the Justice Institute, a libertarian-oriented nonprofit law firm, the couple argued that TWRA’s unwarranted forays into private property infringed Article 1, Section 7 of the Tennessee ConstitutionWhich says in part:

“People should be safe in their person, home, papers and possessions, from unreasonable searches and confiscations.”

“If they can come at will, whenever and wherever they want, what is the value of private property?” Hollingsworth said in an interview earlier this month.

“If they are traveling to private land, they should get a warrant. They are abusing their power and no one can examine it. If fishing for bait (illegal lure through bait) is much worse than child trafficking or other serious crimes that You need a warrant, then they need a warrant.”

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The US Supreme Court and the Constitution of Tennessee

TWRA officials said last week that they do not comment on the pending litigation, but in legal documents and affidavits filed in the case, state wildlife officers said they should have flexibility to enter private property to do their jobs. The agency’s mission is to protect wildlife and enforce hunting, fishing and boating rules.

TWRA lawyers have argued that because 90 percent of the land in Tennessee is privately owned, and where the majority of hunting takes place, TWRA officers cannot do their job without patrolling private property.

TWRA also cited a well-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 an open field — property located outside the vicinity of the owner’s home and yard, like a field of crops outside a farmer’s home.

The US Supreme Court has found that unjustified open field searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Joshua Windham, an attorney at the Institute of Justice who represents Hollingsworth and Rainwaters, said the Tennessee constitution provides its own protections and that the law giving the TWRA the right to illegally enter private property is clearly inconsistent with the state constitution.

“It’s a law enforcement agency that believes it has complete discretion,” Windham said, noting that no other state law enforcement agency has the same powers to enter private property without a warrant as TWRA has mandated in state law.

If they are traveling to private land, they must obtain an injunction. They are abusing their power and no one can check it.

Armed raid and then accused of theft

Hollingsworth has been fishing on the 90-acre estate, a mixture of swampy habitats, fields and tree cover, that has been owned by his family since he was a teenager.

The site can only be accessed through a gate marked “private property” that leads to a primitive dirt driveway, first passing through its neighbors’ properties before reaching the vacant land his father bought 25 years ago.

Hollingsworth said the land is only for hunting and recreation. He said he and his friends had been hunting rabbits, turkeys, deer, ducks, and raccoons there since he was a teenager. He and his girlfriend also sometimes camped at the property.

Hollingsworth said the camera was a severe breach of privacy, as she was able to take pictures of him being intimate with his girlfriend, relaxing outdoors and partying with his friends.

But what happened after he discovered the secret surveillance disturbed Hollingsworth even more.

Weeks after discovering the secret camera, he heard a knock on the door of his house, located in a separate house.

It was early in the day and Hollingworth and his girlfriend weren’t fully dressed. Outside, Hollingsworth said, at least six men were wearing khaki pants and flak jackets, including at least one armed with an assault rifle. Frightened, Hollingsworth’s friend ran into the bedroom.

They were arrested and detained.

Hollingsworth has been charged with six counts of illegal waterfowl hunting, including illegal hunting of game birds.

Weeks after Hollingsworth discovered the secret camera, TWRA agents appeared at his home – armed – and arrested him for illegal waterfowl hunting, a charge he denies. The agents also accused him of stealing the surveillance camera he found on his property.

He and his girlfriend were also charged with the seventh count: stealing a surveillance camera secretly installed on his property.

The camera was installed, according to court files, after TWRA officers contacted agents with the US Fish and Wildlife Service alleging Hollingsworth was violating federal bird regulations. Federal authorities obtained a warrant regarding the camera in court filings, which TWRA officials indicated was not necessary.

In the course of the lawsuit that Hollingsworth and his neighbor later filed, dozens of video and photographic evidence surfaced showing cases when TWRA officers, armed with their own cameras and audio recording equipment — and sometimes crouched behind bushes — seized Hollingsworth and their friends to shoot.

Windham said that while athletes are required to wear bright clothing as a signal of their presence to other poachers, TWRA officials are not, creating a potentially dangerous situation during covert surveillance. Video taken by TWRA officers shows that they are in the line of fire for poachers.

Some videos have captured TWRA officers walking through the secluded Hollingsworth property and telling of their observation of corn kernels near duck curtains or wet fields with corn cob scraps.

The audio evidence presented in the case was recorded at least once when Hollingsworth was on his property when he was confronted by TWRA officials.

“Hunter, stop for a moment, okay?” TWRA agent told Hollingsworth. “We have a few things to talk about. Put your bucket down… We have a few things to talk about. There is no sense in getting upset.”

“It makes no sense to you to come here every time I fish,” Hollingsworth replied. “No one is calling you.”

The agent replied, “When you bought your fishing license, you invited me.”

Hollingsworth later pleaded guilty to one count of hunting wild animals – a claim he continues to deny. He lost his fishing license for three years. Charges against his friends and girlfriend were dropped.

“I’m not saying I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. But they threatened to charge my girlfriend because she lives with me. She was going to lose her job because she needed to travel to work. It has nothing to do with hunting.”