Police Use of Aerial Drones Raises Concerns

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on August 08, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Police use of aerial drones is taking off, raising privacy and legal concerns. Case in point: Rodney Brossart, the first U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil with the help of an unmanned Predator drone.

Police arrested Brossart after an armed standoff over cows that had wandered onto his Lakota, N.D., farm in June 2011. Police launched a Homeland Security drone to track Brossart and his relatives during the standoff, according to U.S. News and World Report.

So how does aerial drone surveillance work with the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches?

Some experts compare unmanned aerial police drones to police helicopters: They're generally legal when flown in "public navigable airspace" to spot things that a person "knowingly exposes to the public," the Supreme Court has ruled.

Rodney Brossart's police drone case may be the first of many. Already, the FAA has issued 300 "temporary licenses" for U.S. law enforcement and research institutions to use surveillance drones; as many as 30,000 drones could be patrolling U.S. airspace by 2020, the McClatchy-Tribune News Service reports.

But unmanned drones present unique safety concerns. They crash at a rate seven times higher than general-aviation aircraft and 350 times higher than commercial aircraft, according to McClatchy-Tribune.

Groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Library Association are concerned, as are members of Congress from both parties. One draft bill, introduced Aug. 1, would impose privacy standards on commercial drone operators, The Hill's technology blog reports.

In Rodney Brossart's aerial police drone case, he tried to get his charges dismissed because of the alleged "warrantless" drone surveillance. But a judge declined, stating "there was no improper use of an unmanned aerial vehicle," U.S. News reports. Still, the issue of drone surveillance will likely rise again as Brossart's criminal case proceeds.

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