There’s a regulatory gray area when it comes to game wardens surveilling private property, and two hunting clubs in Pennsylvania are currently challenging the issue. In December, the Punxsutawney Hunting Club and the Pitch Pine Hunting Club, which collectively own and operate over 5,000 acres of forested land, sued the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Their lawsuit alleges that PGC game wardens routinely ignored “No Trespassing” signs and locked gates in order to spy on club members without a warrant.
Both hunting clubs are being represented by attorneys from the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that specializes in government violations of constitutional rights.
“People should feel secure on private property,” Frank Stockdale, president of the Punxsutawney Club, told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette last December. “They should feel like they have privacy and seclusion. But the Pennsylvania Game Commission is making us feel the opposite. We feel invaded.”
The lawsuit names both the PGC and game warden Mark Gritzer. The clubs complain that for years, Gritzer and other wildlife officers have regularly entered and searched their privately owned lands to check club members for compliance.
This is fairly standard activity for game wardens, as any private-land hunter knows. If game wardens weren’t allowed to access private lands, it would be nearly impossible for them to investigate potential poaching or wildlife crimes. However, evidence turned over by the state in July revealed that in addition to surveilling hunters in person, wildlife officers had installed a trail camera on the property without the club’s knowledge or permission.
But why is it legal for Pennsylvania game wardens to set up a trail camera on private property? Isn’t that a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against warrantless searches? Well, not exactly.
How Law Enforcement Circumvents the Fourth Amendment
Andrew Wimer, director of media relations for the Institute for Justice, wrote a recent op-ed in which he explains that the “Open Field Doctrine” permits state and federal law enforcement to use monitoring strategies such as motion-activated trail cameras to surveil rural lands. Initially created in 1924 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984, the doctrine specifically states that “government intrusion and information collection upon open fields do not constitute searches or seizures under the Fourth Amendment…even if there are fences or ‘no trespassing’ signs around the field.” Many modern trail cameras have cellular photo and video capability, so they are able to send images to a phone or computer as they’re recorded.
Mississippi, Montana, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington are the only states in the U.S. that do not honor the Open Fields Doctrine. In Pennsylvania as in the rest of the country, there is no limit for when federal officers can come onto private property and for how long they can watch. With the aid of modern trail cameras, this allows game wardens to constantly surveil private lands without a warrant for weeks or months at a time.
Outdoor Life reached out to PGC for comment, and the commission directed all questions to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office. The AG’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
As the lawsuit points out, Pennsylvania’s state constitution includes three Warrantless Entry Statutes (Pa. C.S.A. 303(c), 901(a)(2), 901(a)(8)) that are specific to the state’s game commission. These statues give wildlife officers the authority to enter private property, posted or otherwise, in order to conduct administrative inspections of persons, licenses, firearms, decoys, blinds, etc.
The current lawsuit in Pennsylvania represents a constitutional challenge to these three statutes. And while it’s the most recent case of private citizens contesting the government’s right to surveil private property using trail cams, it’s certainly not the first. Similar lawsuits were filed in Texas and Tennessee in 2018.
The outcome of the Pennsylvania case will be worth keeping an eye on as it could potentially set a new legal precedent. Until then, wildlife officers there will continue to be allowed to monitor private lands with trail cameras.