Hunter Hollingsworth was hunting early one January morning in 2018 when he noticed something odd in one of the trees on his hunting property. He thought perhaps it was an animal and grabbed a flashlight to inspect it closer. It was a hidden camera with an antenna with images of himself, TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency) agents, and US Fish and Wildlife agents. Hollingsworth removed the camera and placed it in his safe, forgetting about it until he had an unpleasant encounter later that fall when law enforcement came with a search warrant and searched his home, claiming he had stolen the camera. Hollingsworth said they were dressed in bulletproof vests and had first aid kits and extra magazines like they were a SWAT team. They handcuffed him but did not arrest him.
Several months later, he was charged with multiple violations, including theft of government property and illegal baiting. He lost his hunting license for three years in exchange for a plea deal that dropped most of the charges.
Many were concerned when the hidden camera story came to light, denoting it as an extreme violation of privacy and checking their properties for cameras.
This is extreme violation of privacy. I can't believe they charged him with theft for cameras he wasn't told they would be putting on his PRIVATE PROPERTY. People start checking your property.https://t.co/ShwNzSnDBH
— MMOHZ.com JOURNAL (@mmmohz) October 29, 2022
Hollingsworth filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a government agency placing a camera on his property without permission. However, his case was thrown out of federal court, and he said he did not have the funds to continue fighting.
Through word of mouth, Hollingsworth discovered that a neighbor, Terry Rainwater, had also found two cameras on his private property. One pointed directly at his workshop in his home.
Rainwaters’ son and friends were charged in Operation Bird Dog two months later.
Rainwaters’ land was accessed by an officer who used a boat to trespass on his land and install cameras. Rainwater was not living on his property at the time but had rented it to a tenant. Rainwaters’ had never been cited for violation of hunting laws.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the TWRA argued they were allowed to install the cameras because of a provision called the Open Fields Doctrine, which says that “open fields” are not protected by the fourth amendment.
The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches or seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Hollingsworth explained that he was running out of options to fight back, expressing what many have felt when they attempt to sue a governmental agency: that the agencies had more time and money and would be able to “drag you out and run you out of money.”
A nonprofit law firm, The Institute for Justice, stepped in to help, saying the Tennessee constitution prohibited these agencies from spying on private landowners without obtaining warrants as the Tennessee Constitution has a provision protecting a citizen’s possessions from being illegally searched.
“The Tennessee Constitution was designed so that law enforcement have to go through certain procedures to do their jobs,” Institute for Justice attorney Josh Windham said. “We don’t live in a country and we don’t live in a state in Tennessee where police just get to do whatever they want because it’s efficient or it would make their lives easier.”
Hollingsworth and Rainwater recently won their court case when Benton County Circuit Court ruled in their favor. The TWRA has appealed the judgment.