For many people, a central attraction of owning and living on a multi-acre expanse of land is the opportunity for complete privacy — to include freedom from the prying eyes of government.
While most Americans might understandably believe the Fourth Amendment’s protection against warrantless searches covers all their property, a little-known 1924 Supreme Court decision—Hester v United States—says otherwise. The case struck a major blow against privacy rights, and government agents of all stripes have been exploiting the ruling ever since.
Those exploitations have grown increasingly brazen. Just ask Josh Highlander, whose home sits on a wooded, 30-acre spread east of Richmond, Virginia.
In April, Highlander’s wife and 6-year-old son were playing basketball in their yard. When his wife went to retrieve a long rebound, she spotted a man in full camouflage walking among the trees. Alarmed, she and her son darted inside the house.
When Highlander went outside, he couldn’t locate the man, but did discover that a game camera he’d placed in his food plot was gone. When he called police, he learned the man on his property was an agent of Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) — one of three who crossed another piece of private land to enter his property. Worse, the same trio had taken his camera, holding no warrant for that action either.
These incidents took place on the first day of turkey season. Before coming to Highlander’s property, DWR agents had also entered two other properties, belonging to his brother and to his father, issuing a citation to his brother for illegally hunting “over bait.” However, the alleged “bait” was seed for his brother’s own food plot, consistent with DWR’s instructions for managing such a plot.
DWR’s violation of Highlander’s liberties didn’t end that day. “For weeks, my son wouldn’t play outside in his own back yard because he was afraid of who might be in the woods,” says Highlander. “My camera was taken two months ago, and I’ve still never received a receipt, a warrant or a ticket.”
This unsettling brand of government misconduct springs from the Supreme Court’s Hester decision.