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.