Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Sky Police: Drones and the Fourth Amendment

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Sky Police: Drones and the Fourth Amendment

Article excerpt

In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Police Patrol, snooping into people's windows. --George Orwell, 1984 (1) 


Unmanned drones have proven an integral part of the fight against terrorism overseas. The Trump, Obama, and Bush Administrations have relied upon drones to target extremists, particularly in Pakistan and Yemen. (2) "Drone strikes" involving the targeted killing of terrorist suspects have garnered media attention, (3) but drones need not be equipped with weapons. Many drones, used for reconnaissance purposes, are outfitted with instant-feed cameras, infrared scanners, and telescopes. (4) The military has used unmanned aerial vehicles ("UAVs," or simply "drones") for reconnaissance missions since 1959; (5) UAVs present attractive alternatives to the risks that accompany traditional human-operated planes for surveillance purposes. (6) Varied in size as well as application, drones can be as large as business jets or small enough to fit into the palm of someone's hand, rendering them virtually undetectable. (7)

Drones have become increasingly popular domestically. Since 2005, Customs and Border Patrol ("CBP") has used UAVs to police the Canadian and Mexican borders. (8) The program has been successful; in 2015 alone, drones helped CBP interdict several tons of both marijuana and cocaine. (9) When they are not needed to patrol the border, CBP sometimes allows local law enforcement agencies to use drones in their investigations, though it is unknown how frequently this happens. (10) In December of 2011, a CBP Predator B drone helped a North Dakota sheriff pinpoint the location of three gunmen on a 3,000 acre parcel of land. (11) This was the first known occasion of U.S. citizens being arrested with the assistance of a Predator drone. (12)

In 2012, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department used aircraft to record high-resolution video of the entire city of Compton. (13) One of the participants in the program remarked that "[w]e literally watched all of Compton during the times that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people." (14) The experiment seems to have been a success. In October 2017, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners decided to allow the police department to start a one-year pilot program for drone surveillance. (15)

Drones have extraordinarily wide applicability. They can be used to perform search and rescue operations, to monitor natural resources, to assist in wildlife conservation efforts, (16) to minimize risks in law enforcement activities, or even to conduct traffic reports. (17) Drones also have a lot of potential uses in criminal cases. For instance, drones could be used to track the movements of suspected drug dealers or human traffickers. Police could use them to observe robbery suspects or trespassers. Indeed, the possible applications of drones, sometimes called "plane[s] with brain[s]," (18) are virtually limitless. (19)

Drones also have the advantage of being cheaper in the long run than traditional surveillance techniques--before the advent of computer technology, practicality concerns would have prevented extended surveillance of suspects. (20) Once drones become commonplace, a single government agent can control a single drone remotely, potentially limited only by the drone's range and battery life. (21) As one of the purveyors of drone technologies remarked, "[o]ur whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter,... [b]ut.. it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch." (22) Drones have made surveillance cheaper, easier, and more effective.

Advances in technology have greatly relieved the burden of more traditional surveillance techniques. …

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