Imagine you’re walking through your land. Maybe it’s your personal land or it’s the land you lease for hunting. Maybe it’s something else. Either way, you’re walking through it and you see something. It’s a game camera secured to a tree.
Now, you know you didn’t put it there. If you lease the land, maybe you know already that the owner didn’t put it there either. You take a look at it. There’s no markings or anything.
If you’re like most people, you’d probably figure a poacher put it up to try and figure out where to hunt on land they’re not legally allowed to so. It’s sure as hell what I’d think.
Yet it seems that there may be another alternative, one that I personally think is more terrifying.
Seated at his kitchen table, finishing off the remains of a Saturday breakfast, Hunter Hollingsworth’s world was rocked by footsteps on his front porch and pounding at the door, punctuated by an aggressive order: “Open up or we’ll kick the door down.”
Surrounded on all sides of his house, and the driveway blocked, Hollingsworth was the target of approximately 10 federal and state wildlife officials packing pistols, shotguns and rifles. And what was Hollingsworth’s crime? Drugs, armed robbery, assault, money laundering? Not quite.
Months prior, in 2018, the Tennessee landowner removed a game camera secretly strapped to a tree on his private land by wildlife officials in order to monitor his activity without apparent sanction or probable cause. Repeat: Hollingsworth’s residence was searched by U.S. government and state officials, dressed to the nines in assault gear, seeking to regain possession of a trail camera—the precise camera they had surreptitiously placed on his private acreage after sneaking onto his property at night, loading the camera with active SD and SIM cards, and zip-tying the device roughly 10’ high up a tree—all without a warrant.
That’s right. The sent a swarm of officers to Hollingsworth’s home because of a game camera.
But, that can’t be legal, can it?
Well, actually, they can.
The vast majority of Americans assume law enforcement needs a warrant to carry out surveillance, but for roughly a century, SCOTUS has ruled that private land—is not private. Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” expressed in the Bill of Rights only apply to an individual’s immediate dwelling area, according to SCOTUS.
However, SCOTUS’ Open Fields doctrine has been bucked in Mississippi, Montana, New York, Oregon and Vermont through protections granted by state constitutions, and for many American landowners, the more they discover about Open Fields—the more questions they have regarding the bounds of government power.
In Tennessee, Hollingsworth and Terry Rainwaters, another landowner who discovered multiple trail cameras on his property placed by the state, are taking their cases to state court, claiming violations of the Tennessee State Constitution. The Rainwaters and Hollingsworth stories contain alarming claims regarding the behavior of wildlife officials and raise a bevy of questions over Open Fields, states’ rights, and the sanctity of private property.
And I wish them the best of luck.
While I tend to support game laws, the truth of the matter is that I’ve also seen some questionable behavior by game authorities. For example, a family member of my wife’s was cited by a game warden for illegal hunting on his own land. The problem? The only thing he was “hunting” was the identity of the individual who parked a truck on his property. Yeah, he had a gun on him, but do you blame him?
It’s important to understand that with regard to these cameras, they’re not marked. There’s nothing on them saying “Department of Wildlife” or whatever the relevant agency calls itself.
So, what can you do?
Well, Hollingsworth and Rainwaters are doing one of the things you can do. Taking it to court is certainly a good step.
But what if you find a camera on your property? What are your options?
I can’t tell you that. I can mention that some of my friends who were aware of this story made some suggestions that were amusing. One was to use the camera to take pictures of the male genitalia. Another suggested uploading geriatric porn onto the sim card.
I won’t tell you to do those things, but if you do and I find out about it, I’ll probably laugh my rear off.
Either way, though, I’m particularly alarmed by the idea of swarming a person’s home for trying to actually combat poaching on that land, because that’s what we’re really talking about here. Unmarked game cameras mysteriously showing up on someone’s land is a problem, and I don’t think the government should get a pass on that.