Master falconer sues three TWRA officers after sweeping home search, seizure of 13 raptors

By: - August 1, 2023 6:01 am
Holly Lamar with one of her falcons. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Holly Lamar with one of her hawks. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A master falconer has filed suit against three Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency law enforcement officers, alleging her constitutional rights were violated when they unlawfully seized 13 birds of prey, phone, computer, video and other records from her Nashville home in 2022 — an action a criminal court judge called “egregious,” “an abuse of the law” and “malicious prosecution.”

The lawsuit, brought by longtime falconer and Nashville songwriter, Holly Lamar, also alleges the three male TWRA officers singled her out because of her gender when they misapplied state and federal rules that govern bird use and ownership in the traditionally male-dominated field of falconry.

Lamar was charged with 30 misdemeanor wildlife violation counts last fall after the state seized her owls, buzzards, kestrels and falcons. The charges, alleging she possessed more birds than legally allowed and failed to file proper paperwork, collectively carried a term of more than 15 years in prison.

In January, the Davidson County District Attorney ‘s office dropped all criminal charges against Lamar after a presiding judge ordered the immediate return of Lamar’s birds and blasted TWRA actions. Lamar’s seven-year-old peregrine falcon, Faith, did not survive TWRA’s seizure and relocation to a rehab facility.

“Our lawsuit alleges that these TWRA officers unconstitutionally seized Ms. Lamar’s birds, maliciously prosecuted her, and ruined her lawful business,” Ben Raybin, Lamar’s attorney, said in a statement.

“After months spent defending herself at great emotional and financial cost, she is looking forward to going on the offensive and holding these officers accountable for everything they took from her,” he said.

TWRA referred requests to speak to the three officers named in the lawsuit — Captain Rusty Boles, officer Matthew Norman and Colonel Darren Rider — to a prior statement issued by the agency that said the officers “followed proper protocol in this case.”

“Unprecedented in the modern history of falconry”

The possession of raptors in Tennessee is subject to an array of state and federal regulations. Falconry, the practice of using trained raptors to hunt wild game, is subject to a five-bird limit in Tennessee.

Falconers also use raptors for other purposes, including education, breeding and abatement — the use of raptors to deter human-wildlife conflicts, such as seagulls disrupting airport operations or purple martins that have, in recent years, swarmed the Nashville Symphony.

‘Egregious’ abuse of the law: Tennessee wildlife agency takes falcons and prosecutes their owner

The rules and the required permits also vary depending on whether the birds are native, wild-caught or captive-bred.

Lamar possessed a master falconry permit from the state, along with federal permits allowing her to possess unlimited numbers of raptors for education, breeding and abatement. Four of her birds were non-native, and therefore not subject to TWRA oversight, the suit claims.

Lamar said her trouble with TWRA began when she sought information to ensure she was fully compliant with state raptor permit rules.

Boles, a TWRA officer newly-appointed to the job of regulating raptors, either failed to provide answers or provided answers that were “widely divergent” from his predecessor and decades of TWRA interpretation, legal filings said. His position was that Lamar was limited to five raptors and could not use any of her birds for educational purposes.

The American Falconry Conservancy and the North American Falconer’s Association stepped in, telling  Boles they believed he was misinterpreting state laws.

After speaking with Boles for months without receiving definitive answers on what she was legally allowed to do with her birds — during which time Lamar could not fully operate her falconry education business — Lamar filed a complaint against Boles with TWRA leaders.

On Aug. 2, 2022, days after Lamar filed her complaint, TWRA obtained a warrant to seize Lamar’s birds and other property.

“We are unaware of something of this nature happening to any of our other members in recent history,” a legal brief submitted in Lamar’s criminal case by the North American Falconer’s Association said. The brief called TWRA’s actions “unprecedented” in the modern history of falconry and a “misapplication of the law.”

It was months after Lamar’s birds were seized that she learned of the 30-misdemeanor charges against her.

“The sheer number of criminal charges (TWRA officers) brought against Lamar — far more than are typically placed against murderers and rapists — reflect (the officers) vengeful and unreasonable personal animus and ill-will against her,” the lawsuit said.

Lamar said in an interview Friday that the experience, which hobbled her business for months and deprived her of birds hand-raised since they were chicks, was “soul-crushing.”

Faith, the peregrine falcon who died in TWRA custody, held special meaning, she said. Lamar purchased Faith at a low moment in her life and named her as a nod to country singer Faith Hill, whose 1999 megahit “Breathe” Lamar co-wrote.

“Flirtatious,” “insidious” conversations

Lamar described Boles as “intimidating,” telling her in taped conversations reviewed by the Lookout that he was a former homicide detective and domestic violence investigator experienced in complex investigations — and he was now investigating Lamar.

Boles has not previously served as either a homicide detective or domestic violence officer, according to interviews with his previous employers and a Lookout review of his employment history.

Lamar characterized Boles as alternately “flirtatious” and “insidious” in his conversations with her.

“I just felt that he would never talk that way to a man,” Lamar said Friday.

The federal lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, alleges that Boles and his colleagues targeted Lamar because she is a woman.

State wildlife agency sued over secret surveillance on private land

The suit claims other male falconers in Tennessee possess more than five raptors and charged fees for demonstrations of their birds — as Lamar was attempting to do with her wildlife education business, Wing Blade Falconry, which offers demonstrations to the general public and to disabled vets and kids with disabilities.

Boles and his colleagues told other male falconers in Tennessee they would not be subject to the same legal actions as Lamar, the lawsuit said.

“They also indicated to male falconers that, once the case was made against (Lamar), they “need not worry about similar retribution,” the federal lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also claims that, when Lamar requested assistance in obtaining a state permit for ‘animal damage control,’ also a traditionally male-dominate activity, Boles “insinuated she could not pass the required test due to her gender.”

The lawsuit is the second filed against TWRA in two years alleging violations of the Constitution’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which protect citizens from unlawful searches, seizures and that establish the right to be secure in one’s home.

Earlier this year, a three judge panel found TWRA’s longstanding practice of conducting warrantless searches on private property is unconstitutional.  The case was brought by two Benton County men after repeated forays onto their private property, including secret video surveillance, by agency personnel. The Tennessee Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the state’s appeal of that decision last month.

Lamar’s suit seeks unspecified damages from the three officersHolly Lamar federal suit against TWRA officers


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.