CAMDEN, Tenn. (WKRN) — When Hunter Hollingsworth and Terry Rainwaters sued the TWRA and some of its employees, they asked for money – $1 to be exact.
“It’s not about the dollar, it’s about the rights that have been restored to property owners across Tennessee,” Hollingsworth said.
The Benton County Circuit Court ruled in the pair’s favor in what many see as a win for landowners. Of course, the TWRA contended its job just got a whole lot harder.
“We do now require a search license to be able to go on private property,” TWRA Director of Communications Emily Buck said. “It can be difficult, for example, to be able to get a search warrant, a lot of times, if we’re dealing with a poaching or a trespassing issue at night.”
The importance of the fact that the TWRA now has to obtain a search warrant before entering private property cannot be understated. Wildlife crime, the agency argued, will go up.
“Our issues are often very time-sensitive, so if someone is hunting game illegally, they’re going to be gone by the time we obtain that search warrant,” Buck said. “So, there’s really nothing we can do about it at that point.”
It’s a complex issue. At some level, people want the agency to be able to stop poaching and other wildlife crimes.
Take Hollingsworth, for example. Critics argue there was a reason law enforcement was watching him. If you ask him, he’ll admit he’s made mistakes after being charged with poaching violations in the past.
“I have made mistakes,” he said. “But good people make bad decisions.”
Physically watching someone commit an illegal act is one thing, but Hollingsworth and Rainwaters said installing cameras went too far.
“Cameras are absolutely over the line because you’re being watched 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Hollingsworth said. “You’re being seen doing things that could be private.”
In Rainwaters’s case, he said he’s never committed a wildlife violation in his life, even if his son has.
“I have a clean record,” Rainwaters said. “I haven’t been doing anything illegal, so why should they be spying on my land?”
Their attorneys argue that other law enforcement can’t enter without a search warrant, so why should this be any different?
“People can commit all sorts of crimes with their property. For example, in your house, you can commit cybercrimes, you can deal drugs,” Institute for Justice attorney Josh Windham said.
“Nobody thinks that just because it would be easier if police could go into your house whenever they want, all of a sudden, they should be able to do that.”
The attorney argues we have a Fourth Amendment, and there’s a reason for that.
“The Tennessee Constitution was designed so that law enforcement have to go through certain procedures to do their jobs,” Windham said. “We don’t live in a country and we don’t live in state in Tennessee where police just get to do whatever they want because it’s efficient or it would make their lives easier.”
Prior to the camera installations, Hollingsworth pleaded guilty to hunting violations and had his hunting license suspended three years.
That suspension ends November 6th.
“I’m very excited, it’s been a long three years,” Hollingsworth said. “I’ve missed a lot of hunting, a lot of good times with friends.”
Though he admits, he’s also nervous.
“As upset as TWRA and the feds are, I’m afraid they’ll try to frame me for something that I didn’t do,” Hollingsworth said.
For its part, the TWRA said it couldn’t comment on the case – that’s because it appealed the ruling. But until it’s heard, because of the outcome, the agency now must obtain a search warrant prior to searching private property.
In the meantime, it has some relationships to mend, and it knows that.
“Something that we’ve really been working to overcome is our relationships with landowners. So, we are putting in the extra effort to build those relationships with landowners,” Buck said. “We are going to those landowners, we’re asking for permission to patrol their property. We’re asking for permission to be able to act in the event there is a reported case.”
But, it’s certainly going to take some time. When it comes to Rainwaters and Hollingsworth, that trust and respect may never return.
“I don’t trust them after the camera and stuff,” Hollingsworth said. “There’s a lot of corruption.”
“They’re way overstepping their boundaries,” Rainwaters said. “They need to be put in their place.”
Hollingsworth said he loves wildlife and feels guilty over his past mistakes; it’s not something he’s proud of. But he believes it’s helped him become a better person and a better hunter. When asked if he had anything to say to the TWRA, he shrugged.
“I’m all for protecting wildlife and preserving wildlife for the next generation,” he said. “But y’all will have to find a better way to do it.”
Note: The TWRA said it could not comment specifically on the case, only on the rules and regulations it followed before and after the case. To learn more about how, at the time, it was legal to install cameras on private property, watch the second part of this series.