Written By Chris Bennett September 19, 2022
Government surveillance cameras watch U.S. citizens on private land. Period. Full-stop.
Without warrant or probable cause, at the federal level and sometimes at the state level, government officials claim the power to enter private property, install secret cameras, and record at will—all without accountability or oversight.
Case in point: Following a lawsuit initiated by two hunting clubs, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) admitted to surveilling club members via a no-warrant trail camera. “We never had a clue it would be as obscene as having game cameras spying on us,” said Frank Stockdale, president of Punxsutawney Hunting Club. “It’s outrageous to think someone’s taking pictures of you on your own private property.”
“I don’t see how anybody has the right to film me,” echoed Punxsutawney member Mark Miller. “It shouldn’t be happening.”
Federal and state agencies often claim authority to clandestinely monitor private landowners via the Open Fields doctrine. Backed by the Supreme Court, Open Fields denies constitutional protection from warrantless searches to private acreage.
However, a glaring pile of surveillance questions is mounting related to the activities of federal and state officials across the U.S. How many no-warrant federal or state cameras currently operate (or operated in the past 25 years) on private land? If cameras are permissible without warrant, what prevents federal or state officials from setting up year-round, live video feeds on private property?
If federal or state officials—lacking a warrant, a judge’s nod, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause—can secretly place a surveillance camera on the land of private citizens, then why not install multiple cameras—5, 10, 20? If a month’s worth of photo surveillance can be collected, why not six months of coverage? Why not five years? Why not on a permanent basis?
Where is restraint? Where is accountability? The questions answer themselves.
How Many Cameras?
In December 2021, Punxsutawney (4,000 acres) and Pitch Pine (1,100 acres), adjacent hunting clubs in central Pennsylvania’s Clearfield County, launched a lawsuit against PGC, alleging warrantless searches of private land. Represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), the clubs claim PGC officers often “roam for hours” and “spy on” private land in search of hunting violations. PGC behavior, according to the lawsuit, is a direct violation of Pennsylvania’s state constitution, which in Article 1, Section 8, explicitly protects “persons, houses, papers, and possessions” from unreasonable (i.e., warrantless) searches.
During the legal process of discovery, seven months after the filing, IJ received notification (and photographs) from PGC revealing a secret trail camera installed by game wardens on Punxsutawney property. The PGC disclosure was long suspected by members of both clubs: In February 2022, long-time Pitch Pine member Jon Mikesell spoke presciently. “We’re literally dealing with game wardens hiding on our land to catch guys committing some kind of infraction,” he said. “I wonder if they’re using game cameras on our own private land to watch and monitor us; I have deep suspicions.”
According to IJ attorney Daniel Nelson, the PGC camera was placed surreptitiously on Punxsutawney property within proximity of a feeding station in 2016 and functioned for roughly one week. “We have been made aware of one camera, but we are still working to make sure there were not, and are not, others. The camera operated 24-7 and took photos all hours of the day. It’s outrageous and disturbing because it recorded club members, vehicles, and license plates for the state. If not for the lawsuit, my clients would not have known about the camera.”
“If a camera has no warrant or no judge’s approval, then it’s there for one reason—to find a crime,” Nelson continues. “But you can be sure, if the government already knew of a crime, they would instantly get a warrant. Instead, it’s find the people, set up the camera, and wait for an infraction—the reverse of how law enforcement is supposed to act.”
Despite the divulgence of PGC’s state-level camera, the possibility of federal surveillance remains at Punxsutawney and Pitch Pine. As in, did PGC contact U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and request additional camera installation by FWS? Federal agencies claim authority to utilize no-warrant cameras and surveillance on private land across the nation, regardless of state law. According to federal officials, backed by the Supreme Court via the Open Fields doctrine, private acreage poses no boundary to any government representative. Constitutional protection, according to Open Fields, extends to person and home, but not to greater land holdings.
(FWS did not respond to Farm Journal inquiries regarding Punxsutawney and Pitch Pine, or questions related to Open Fields.)
“That’s something we have to consider,” Nelson says. “We not suing the feds, but we don’t have information as to whether the feds are involved.”
The Punxsutawney no-warrant camera has precedent in northwest Tennessee’s Benton and Henry counties. Terry Rainwaters (136 acres) and Hunter Hollingsworth (95 acres), own properties that serve as living quarters and farmland (in Rainwaters’ case), as well as hunting ground. In a two-month span between December 2017-January 2018, Rainwaters found two active FWS trail cameras on his property, and Hollingsworth located one FWS trail camera on his private land. Although all three cameras were owned by FWS, the devices were installed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).
Nelson believes no-warrant cameras in Pennsylvania and Tennessee are representative of similar government surveillance in other states. “The Institute for Justice just started doing these Open Fields cases, and we’ve only done two, but found secret game cameras in both. This is looking like a common practice on the land of private citizens, and it is highly disturbing. How many no-warrant cameras are out there across the country gathering data right now?”
Indeed. How many?
Open the Black Box
What are the odds the state camera placed on Punxsutawney is the sole, no-warrant recording device ever planted on private land by PGC? Slim to none, according to Nelson.
Whether officially, or unofficially, how many individuals at PGC were in the know when the camera was placed? What was the chain of command? The details, Nelson explains, are somewhat of a black box.
“Game wardens in Pennsylvania do not have to log activity or take notes on their entrance and exit when they go on private property. We’re learning that game wardens can come on private land and leave no record or account.”
(PGC declined all questions related to Punxsutawney-Pitch Pine litigation. Additionally, PGC declined to answer all questions related to game warden regulations, process, chain of command, and no-warrant camera policy. PGC referred all Farm Journal questions to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. The Pennsylvania AG did not respond to Farm Journal interview requests.”)
Briefing before the court is yet to begin in the Punxsutawney-Pitch Pine lawsuit. Ultimately, IJ intends to press the private property issue to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.
“We’re looking for more of these cases,” Nelson says. “Other states follow the Open Fields doctrine and we are looking elsewhere, beyond Pennsylvania and Tennessee.”
“Open Fields shows that if you give government an inch, they’ll take a mile. When you lose privacy rights on your own property, there are no limits,” Nelson adds. “Government officials can now install 24-7 hidden cameras, and think nothing of it? That’s where we’re at in this country—but we see this case as an important step in restoring people’s constitutional right to be free from warrantless intrusions on their land.”
By Farm Journal AG Web