W.D.Tenn.: Putting a wildlife camera on ptf’s open fields wasn’t a violation of the 4A

Officers putting a wildlife camera on plaintiff’s open fields wasn’t a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Hollingsworth v. Tenn. Wildlife Res. Agency, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181311 (W.D. Tenn. Oct. 21, 2019):

In light of the foregoing, the Court holds that Plaintiff has failed to state a plausible Fourth Amendment claim against Hoofman or Lock. The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff owns farming and hunting property and that both agents trespassed upon Plaintiff’s land to install a camera, presumably for the purpose of monitoring Plaintiff’s movements on the property. Plaintiff alleges that he found the camera on a tree in a location designed to record Plaintiff as he entered and exited the property. Plaintiff further alleges that his property was posted and landlocked by two other parcels. Even accepting these claims as true, however, they do not add up to a Fourth Amendment violation. Nothing in the Complaint implies that Plaintiff had a home on the property, much less that Defendants used the camera to surveil Plaintiff in his home or its curtilage. It follows that Defendants mounted the camera in what can only be described as “open field,” an area beyond the scope of the Fourth Amendment’s protections. Without some particular allegation to show that Defendants conducted a warrantless search of his home or the curtilage of the home, Plaintiff has failed to allege a Fourth Amendment violation.

The Court finds that the facts of the Complaint are squarely on point with the facts addressed by the Sixth Circuit in its unreported decision in Spann v. Carter, 648 F. App’x 586 (6th Cir. 2016). The plaintiff in Spann alleged that agents of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by installing multiple cameras on his hunting property. Spann, 648 F. App’x at 588. The cameras recorded the plaintiff leading turkey hunts on the property, a violation of the plaintiff’s probation on federal charges of hunting without a license and illegally transporting the antlers of a “monster buck” across state lines. Id. at 587. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s § 1983 complaint for failure to state a claim, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. Id. at 588. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the plaintiff’s “private farm” and hunting property constituted an “open field,” and the agents did not therefore violate the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights by installing cameras on the property. Id. And the panel noted that the use of a camera did “not transform their surveillance into a search requiring a warrant.” Id. at 589 (citing United States v. Vankesteren, 553 F.3d 286, 291 (4th Cir. 2009)).

While Spann is not binding, the Court finds it persuasive and nearly factually indistinguishable. Hood v. Keller, 229 F. App’x 393, 398 n.5 (6th Cir. 2007) (“Unpublished decisions of this court do not constitute binding precedent. However, they may constitute persuasive authority ‘especially where there are no published decisions which will serve as well.'”). Like the plaintiff in Spann, Plaintiff alleges that TWRA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents violated the Fourth Amendment by installing a surveillance camera on his private hunting property. And like the plaintiff in Spann, Plaintiff’s property is, for purposes of the Constitution, an open field lacking the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment. Nothing in the Complaint or Plaintiff’s arguments demonstrates to the Court why the same analysis in Spann should not control the result in this case.

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