Using surveillance planes in Baltimore to track movements of people for long periods without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment, federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The case revolved around an aerial surveillance program run by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) called Aerial Investigation Research (AIR). Starting in 2016, BPD announced that it would use cameras attached to planes to conduct aerial surveillance to fight crime. The program was halted in response to public anger at the espionage.
But in 2019, the program returned as AIR. The city approved a contract between BPD and a private company in April 2020. During daylight hours, planes would fly over the city recording footage of roughly 90% of Baltimore’s outdoor activity. The images were stored and could be used to track the movements of individuals linked to particular crimes such as homicides, carjackings and armed robberies.
But the police did not ask for a warrant to go back and examine this collected data. A group of community activists, Leaders of a fine struggle, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), continued, noting that its advocacy involves visiting and visiting places of crime and gun violence, which means its members’ movements could be tracked by AIR . He argued that this unwarranted surveillance violated the rights of Fourth Amendment members and asked the courts to issue an injunction to stop it.
Concerns over the use of aerial surveillance increased throughout 2020 until 2021 when Americans discovered the Department of Homeland Security used drones to spy on protesters who took to the streets to demand police reform after the death of George Floyd. Among those who signed amici briefs supporting Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle were the NAACP, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the limited-government conservatives of the FreedomWorks Foundation.
Judges of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned a lower court ruling and ruled in favor of the ACLU. the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Roger L. Gregory, determined that “because the AIR program allows the police to infer the aggregate of individuals’ movements, we consider access to their data to be research and its warrantless operation violates the Fourth Amendment ”.
Majority opinion draws heavily on the 2018 Supreme Court ruling Carpenter v. United States ruling, which ruled that warrantless tracking of people via their cell phone’s location data violated the Fourth Amendment. In that opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “A person does not waive all Fourth Amendment protection by stepping into the public sphere. This explanation is used here by the 4th Circuit to explain why BPD cannot use aerial surveillance data for the same purpose.
“Carpenter solidified the line between short-term monitoring of public movements, similar to what law enforcement might do ‘[p]before the digital age “and prolonged follow-up that can reveal intimate details through habits and patterns,” Gregory wrote. “This latter form of surveillance invades the reasonable expectation of privacy that individuals have in all of their movements and therefore requires a warrant.”
Gregory goes on to compare the AIR program to “attach[ing] an ankle monitor “to every person in Baltimore. If police determine that a person is linked to a crime, the last six weeks of that person’s movements would be stored via AIR.
Baltimore suspended the program in February this year, which police then attempted to use to have the case declared moot in order to avoid a ruling. But the majority of the court ruled that the debate over the use of aerial surveillance constitutes a “live controversy” and ruled anyway. The lower court’s decision was overturned and the case returned for reconsideration.