Chickens and the Fourth Amendment


November 6, 2018 11:08AM

**If you have hen permit from the City of Knoxville and are concerned about your privacy rights, we want to hear more. Contact Taylor here

Now that Halloween is behind us, it’s Thanksgiving time. Naturally, we should be talking turkey, but we can’t quite yet until we address poultry of another sort: chickens. Your Fourth Amendment protection against random searches of your home and seizures of your property is at stake.

You’re probably thinking that chickens and the Fourth Amendment don’t have anything to do with each other, and you’d be right. But the City of Knoxville thinks they do. It wants to be able to seize your domestic chickens without fussing over things like warrants or the niceties like having a good reason to enter someone’s home (a.k.a probable cause). Here’s what I’m talking about.

Several years ago, the City of Knoxville voted to allow its residents to keep up to 6 domesticated hens in their backyards. All residents would need to do is fill out a permit application and pay a fee. But as part of the application, Knoxville asks that residents waive their “Fourth Amendment Rights as provided by the United States Constitution with regard to hens allowed by this permit.” Knoxville wants this waiver because the Fourth Amendment prevents the city from arbitrarily entering your home and seizing these chickens without a warrant issued by a judge that would ensure the police have a real reason to search your home and to take your property.

What Knoxville is trying to do is unconstitutional. The government cannot tell you that you can only have a permit – even a permit you aren’t otherwise entitled to – if you agree to surrender an unrelated constitutional right. This is a big problem for two reasons.

First, the warrant requirement exists for good reason. It protects citizens from random and invasive governmental actions. Anyone with a chicken permit in Knoxville has lost a vital protection. Yes, this instance involves a waiver, and of course a rights waiver is fine so long as it is done voluntarily. But when the police tell you that you cannot have some benefit unless you waive away a constitutional right, that’s coercive, not voluntary.

Second, Knoxville ignores how the Fourth Amendment works to protect your privacy and property. The warrant must specifically describe the places to be searched and the items to be seized. Here, the waiver is broad and vague, allowing the city to search and seize whatever and wherever as long as it ”relates” to these chickens. What does that mean? Does that include emails with customers? Does it include transaction receipts and business records? If so, you’ve pretty much allowed the police access to every drawer in your house and your computer records. It is what’s called a “general” warrant because it allows Knoxville to search and seize without real limits, and it is one of the things that concerned the Founders greatly

Knoxville residents, don’t give up your rights for chickens. You can have both. If the government can get you to give up one right, it can get you to give up others. We should never let the fox into the hen house, even with a waiver.