Can game guards hang cameras on private land?

There is a regulatory gray area when it comes to game rangers who monitor private property, and two hunting clubs in Pennsylvania are currently challenging this issue. In December, the Punxsutawney and Pitch Pine Hunting Club, which collectively own and manage more than 5,000 acres of woodland, filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission. The lawsuit alleges that PGC game guards routinely ignored “no trespassing” signs and closed gates in order to spy on club members without a warrant.

Both hunting clubs are represented by attorneys from the Justice Institute, a public interest law firm that specializes in government abuses of constitutional rights.

“People should feel safe on private property,” Punxsutawney president Frank Stockdale told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette last December. They should feel like they are being kept private and isolated. But the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission makes us feel the opposite. We feel invaded.”

The lawsuit mentions PGC and game observer Mark Gretzer. The clubs complain that Gretzer and other wildlife officials have entered regularly and inspected their privately owned land for years to check the compliance of club members.

This is a fairly standard activity for game rangers, as any private land hunter knows. If game rangers are not allowed access to private lands, it will be nearly impossible for them to investigate poaching or wildlife crime. However, evidence presented by the state in July revealed that in addition to monitoring poachers in person, wildlife officers installed a tracking camera on the property without the club’s knowledge or permission.

But why is it legal for game guards in Pennsylvania to set up a surveillance camera on private property? Isn’t this a breach of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against warrantless searches? Well, not exactly.

How does law enforcement circumvent the Fourth Amendment?

Andrew Wemmer, director of media relations at the Justice Institute, wrote a recent op-ed explaining that the “open space principle” allows state and federal law enforcement to use surveillance strategies such as motion-activated tracking cameras to monitor rural areas. lands. Initially created in 1924 and upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1984, this principle specifically states that “Government intrusion and the collection of information in open fields do not constitute Fourth Amendment searches or seizures … even if there are fences or signs “No trespassing” around the field. Many modern tracking cameras have cellular image and video capture, so they are able to send images to a phone or computer while they are being recorded.

Mississippi, Montana, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington are the only states in the United States that do not respect the principle of open fields. In Pennsylvania as in the rest of the country, there is no limit to how long federal officers can come to private property and how long they can watch. With the help of modern cameras, this allows game rangers to constantly monitor private territory without a warrant for weeks or months at a time.

outdoor life I reached out to PGC for comment, and the committee directed all questions to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. The AG office did not respond to requests for comment.

As the lawsuit notes, the Pennsylvania Constitution includes three illegal entry laws (Pa. CSA 303(c), 901(a)(2), 901(a)(8)) specific to game commission in the state. These statues give wildlife officers the authority to enter private property, declared or otherwise, in order to conduct administrative inspections of people, licenses, firearms, booby traps, blind people, etc.

The current lawsuit in Pennsylvania presents a constitutional challenge to these three laws. And while it’s the latest case of private citizens vying for the government’s right to monitor private property using tracking cameras, it certainly isn’t the first. Similar lawsuits were filed in Texas and Tennessee in 2018.

The outcome of the Pennsylvania case will be worth watching because it may set a new legal precedent. Until then, wildlife officers there will continue to be allowed to monitor the territory with tracking cameras.

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