This one’s going to require a lot of excerpting, but I’m not going to tuck any of it under the fold. It needs to be up front and in easy viewing reach, in its entirety.
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.
Can the government place cameras and monitoring equipment on a private citizen’s land at will, or conduct surveillance and stakeouts on private land, without probable cause or a search warrant? Indeed, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. Welcome to Open Fields.
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.
It shouldn’t be shocking, I know. All of us should be fully cognizant by now of the boundless reach of the State, at every level. Certainly this past summer has provided confirmation aplenty of even the wildest, most out-there conspiracy theories when it comes to the audacity and omnipotence of the almighty government. Nonetheless, somehow, I have to admit to being shocked by this one.
On bottomland squeezed in the rolling hills of northwest Tennessee’s Benton County, a short walk from the banks of the Big Sandy River, Terry Rainwaters, 53, owns 136 acres of land containing two homes, farmland and an equipment shed. Rainwaters and his son, Hunter Rainwaters, 20, live in one of the homes; a tenant occupies the other. The acreage is the physical center of Rainwaters’ life—a small place to farm, hunt and reside—with one way in, one way out, and a gate that stays locked, backed by “no trespassing” and “posted” signs.
On his way to hunt on his father’s land during the first week of December 2017, Hunter Rainwaters was driving a side-by-side through the property when he noticed an oddity positioned roughly 4’ off the ground. He popped the brakes, backed toward the object and looked in surprise at a trail camera belted to a tree.
“I didn’t see any words or stickers on it, but I knew right away it wasn’t ours,” Hunter Rainwaters recalls.
Following the hunt, he drove back onto the family property and spotted a second trail camera attached to a tree with several branches removed to allow for an unimpeded lens view. Rainwaters dialed his father’s cellphone, and described the two cameras: “I was shaken up when my son called and I knew immediately it had to be the TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency),” Rainwaters recalls.
Deeply disturbed, Rainwaters arrived home later in the afternoon and took a look at the two cameras, mulling over whether to remove the pair. Two days later, with Rainwaters in limbo on what action to take—both cameras disappeared.
“Ask TWRA how many cameras they have on people’s private land right now watching their every move,” Rainwaters says. “I’ll bet they won’t answer that question and we all know why. No warrants, no judge, and no crime necessary, just set up surveillance and do whatever they want to.”
And guess what. Go on, just guess.
(Farm Journal asked TWRA multiple questions related to the use of trail cameras in surveilling Tennessee residents, including, but not limited to: Does TWRA have a list of past camera locations and current, active cameras? Who in TWRA is allowed to view the footage? How long are the cameras allowed to operate in place? Does TWRA recommend prosecution for a landowner for breaking or removing a camera? TWRA declined comment: “The Agency cannot comment on matters in litigation, nor can we provide comment on issues that are currently being litigated.” TWRA directed all questions to the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. However, the Tennessee AG office declined comment.)
Okay, I’m NOT shocked by that. Not in the least, I ain’t. But now we accelerate right on past merely shocked, to flat-out pissed the fuck off.
The vast majority of Americans assume law enforcement needs a warrant to carry out surveillance, but for roughly a century, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has ruled that private land—is not so private. Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” expressed in the Bill of Rights only apply to an individual’s immediate dwelling and curtilage, according to SCOTUS. Curtilage is an arcane term loosely translated as the area directly around a home, or the yard.
In 1924, Hester v. United States set up the Open Fields framework and said the U.S. Constitution does not extend to most land: “the special protection accorded by the Fourth Amendment to the people in their ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects,’ is not extended to the open fields.” Significantly, Open Fields is translated beyond its literal sense, and basically is defined as general acreage: woods, fields, farmland, barren ground, and more.
Further, in 1984, SCOTUS gave additional strength to Open Fields in Oliver v. United States: “open fields do not provide the setting for those intimate activities that the Amendment is intended to shelter from government interference or surveillance. There is no societal interest in protecting the privacy of those activities, such as the cultivation of crops, that occur in open fields.”
Disturbing, infuriating, and downright frightening as it is, you need to read all of it. Once you have, you need to do another thing. Distasteful and unpleasant as they are, you must accept and internalize a few realities:
- You have ONLY whatever liberty Government deigns to allow—which liberty may be denied, wholly or in part, summarily and at Government’s whim, with neither notice nor explanation
- You have NO rights
- You have NO privacy
- You have NO security
- You own NOTHING, and “private property” is a misnomer; it is NOT private, and is under the control NOT of the putative “owner” but of the State
- You are NOT in any meaningful sense a “citizen” of the US and your state of residence; you are the wholly-owned PROPERTY of those entities
One needn’t be in the least doubt as to what Thomas Jefferson would have had to say after discovering government surveillance cameras strapped onto trees around Monticello—placed there clandestinely, his permission unsought, by trespassing government spies skulking about in the night like contemptible house-burglars. But it is incumbent upon us—upon ALL of us—to ponder his inevitable response to such an affront thoroughly, and most gravely.
Jefferson and his fellow Founders would have been apoplectic, of course. But there’s no reason at all to think any of them would have been shocked. Those men had a deep and thorough understanding of exactly what government, ALL government, really is. Of how every government throughout history—no matter how well-intentioned, carefully conceived and constructed, and competently administrated—eventually devolves into corruption, despotism, and petty bureaucratic abuse. Having been schooled in the classroom of first-hand experience, they paid strictest attention to the lessons taught there.
Alas, their complacent and oblivious descendants have done no such thing. The lessons of history having been ignored, the explicit warnings of far-wiser ancestors spurned, the inattentive students wound up in precisely the straits foretold for them. Not really shocking at all, is it?