FindLaw KnowledgeBasePublished: 2012-06-01
First Arrest by Pilotless Drone Raises Fourth Amendment Questions
Today’s citizens, including those in Maryland, have adopted as an integral part of their lives the new technology: the Web, mobile phones, tablets, etc. Much of this technology includes applications like GPS positioning. To a certain extent, we allow social networking platforms like Facebook and the GPS in our mobile phones to change the landscape of what we once thought of as “private.”
But are we ready for drones over our heads?
The first American citizen to be arrested with the help of a pilotless drone in the U.S. is claiming his legal rights were violated when a drone flew overhead during a stand-off with police.
The Lakota, North Dakota, resident held police off for nearly 16 hours as he threatened to kill anyone who came on his property. (The stand-off took place over the ownership of six cows that had made their way onto the man’s property.)
The Department of Homeland Security eventually got involved. It used a drone to accurately pinpoint the man’s location on his farm. Then the arrest was made.
The novel facts of the case seem settled, but the outcome is not.
The Case Against Drones
The farm owner does not deny that the police would “not be walking away” should they step foot on his property. Presumably, as Homeland Security argues, it used the drone to keep S.W.A.T. members safe during the stand-off leading up to the arrest, while lawyers representing the farm owner claim the drone was an abuse of power and was well above the means necessary to make the arrest.
Many experts agree that when used appropriately, the use of pilotless drones in the air generally does not violate the Fourth Amendment protecting citizens against unreasonable search and seizure.
Unless, perhaps, as in the farm owner’s case, a drone is used to sweep over the person’s property, with its crystal-clear seeing eye. In this case, drones could represent a major threat to the average citizen’s privacy and safety, despite reset expectations of privacy in the day of mobile computing and social networking.
People are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of a government drone in the sky, keeping watch on people, regardless of whether they’ve been suspected of committing a crime.
The police won’t necessarily need a warrant to conduct a surreptitious search from the sky using a drone—no one will know it’s even there. In other words, as the use of drones becomes more common, they could subject people to unconstitutional, warrantless searches.