A federal appeals court has ruled that Baltimore Police Department’s aerial surveillance program amounted to a warrantless search and therefore violated Fourth Amendment constitutional rights.
According to an AP report, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the use of planes equipped with wide-angle high-tech cameras to surveil the city to help police fight crime is an unconstitutional violation of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. The Baltimore program used aerial drones to monitor virtually all residents of the city during daylight hours.
“The AIR (Aerial Investigation Research) program records the movements of a city. With analysis, it can reveal where individuals come and go over an extended period. Because the AIR program enables police to deduce from the whole of individuals’ movements, we hold that accessing its data is a search, and its warrantless operation violates the Fourth Amendment,” Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote for the majority in the divided 8-7 ruling.
The police department’s use of drones in a pilot program last year was criticized by privacy advocates. Now, the court’s decision comes as law enforcement agencies across the country have begun to embrace aerial drone technology as a crime-fighting tool.
PowerDMS, a policy management software company, has tracked the adoption of drones by law enforcement over the last 5 years, with departments in Ohio and Illinois using drones for surveillance, photographing crash scenes, controlling crowds and monitoring correctional facilities.
According to the companies’ policy learning center, law enforcement agencies are still working on drone policies.
“Law enforcement drone use is still controversial, so agencies must be extra careful when implementing a drone program,” their website reads.
“The community needs to be able to trust that police won’t use drones to spy on them or harm them. Good policies are key in making sure your law enforcement’s use of drones doesn’t violate citizen’s rights.”
They then refer to a set of guidelines release by The Department of Homeland Security for protecting privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties in drone programs.
In November, a three-judge panel from the 4th Circuit court rejected the Maryland ACLU’srequest for an injunction to block the program, saying it was “carefully designed to slow the increase in violent crime” in the city. The ACLU argued that the program jeopardized the privacy rights of residents and their appeal was successful.
The city and the police department argue that the lawsuit is moot as the program ended in February on its own terms. However, the court ruled that although the police deleted most of the data collected, it retained some related to specific investigations, and will now be prohibited from accessing all data related to the program.
“The real crux of this case was the constitutional question — Is this allowable? — putting an entire city under permanent video surveillance during all the daylight hours and tracking the movement of the entire population of the city and storing that information to create a virtual time machine, and the court said no,” said David Rocah, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, in a dissenting opinion, cited the increase in murder statistics in the city, and said the court did not balance “public needs with privacy concerns.”