Emerging technologies like facial recognition software and gunshot detection systems have revolutionized law enforcement in recent years, and now police departments in Georgia and around the country are deploying aerial drones to observe protests, keep track of fleeing suspects and access areas that would be difficult or impossible for officers to reach. Drones have also been used to conduct warrantless surveillance, which worries civil rights advocacy groups as more than a thousand law enforcement agencies in the United States now use them.
How police are using drones
Legislators in Minnesota have passed a law that requires law enforcement agencies in the state to disclose how drones are used. The data reveals that drones are most often used to train officers, but some deployments are likely to worry advocacy groups and criminal defense attorneys. Police departments say that they need drones to assist rescue efforts following major accidents or natural disasters, but the Minnesota data shows that they were used at least 185 times in 2020 to collect information about suspects based on reasonable suspicion.
The Fourth Amendment
This raises an important question. If the police had reasonable suspicion, why did they deploy drones and not obtain search warrants? The law in this area is murky and still evolving. In the 1986 case California v. Ciraolo, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police did not violate Fourth Amendment protections when they used an aircraft to take photographs of a suspect’s property. The justices made their ruling after determining that the property owner involved did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy because aircraft routinely fly over homes. However, drones fly much lower than aircraft and are far more intrusive.
Clarification is needed
Prosecutors have argued that drone surveillance does not violate constitutional protections because the airspace over a property should be considered “open fields,” but this argument was rejected by the Michigan Supreme Court in a 2021 case involving a couple who allegedly violated zoning laws by keeping junk vehicles on their property. This is an important civil rights issue and clarification is needed, so it may be time for the nation’s highest court to weigh in and clear up the confusion.