The Los Angeles Police Department will soon be able to use drones to help them with criminal investigations. The Los Angeles city commissioners recently granted the LAPD the authority to use drones to surveil high-risk situations for one year. This decision was made despite a number of protests from Los Angeles residents. Those who oppose the drone surveillance program are afraid that the use of drones will violate important Fourth Amendment rights.
LAPD Ability to Use Drones Would Be Limited
The city commissioners voted to allow the LAPD to use a drone in a limited number of situations. The commissioners argue that proposed program would only allow Los Angeles police to use a drone in “high-risk situations.” The drone would not be used for “general surveillance” or in the “investigation of low-level crimes.” Rather, Los Angeles SWAT teams would be permitted to use the drone in extremely dangerous situations.
The commissioners believe that limiting the scope to high-risk situations will prevent the drone from being misused. It is important to note that the LAPD was granted the use of one drone. It will not have authority to purchase or use multiple drones. They will have a second drone available as a backup if the primary drone fails.
Opponents of Drone Program Fear Slippery Slope
More than 3,500 Los Angeles residents opposed the drone program. They fear that giving Los Angeles police the power to use technology in such an intrusive way is a slippery slope. Today the drones are limited to high-risk situations. Tomorrow, though, who knows? There will probably be a lot of support to expand the program if it proves to be a powerful tool for law enforcement. This could be potentially devastating for ordinary Los Angeles citizens.
Courts Undecided About How Drone Surveillance Affects Right to Privacy
Drones are relatively new. An increasing number of law enforcement agencies and police departments are beginning use drones to gather information and evidence. The question about how the use of drones affects our Fourth Amendment right to privacy has started to infiltrate the courts. As a whole, it appears as though the courts are undecided on the issue.
Some courts have applied existing legal theories and practices to the drone situation. The Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment is not violated when photographs are taken from an airplane 1,000 feet in the air. The Court also held that the Fourth Amendment is not violated when photographs are taken from a helicopter 400 feet above the ground. One reason for this is because planes at 1,000 feet and helicopters at 400 feet would not be able to see anything on a person’s property that they wanted to hide. Justice O’Connor noted in one case that “police surveillance from such altitudes would [not] violate reasonable expectations of privacy.” This is especially true if aircrafts complied “with FAA air safety regulations.” Aircrafts must, by law, maintain a certain distance from the ground. If these aircrafts cannot get close to a suspect’s target, they would probably not be able to intrude on an expectation of privacy.
Drones, however, are different. Drones are quiet and not yet subject to strict regulations. It is difficult to apply the Fourth Amendment protections to drones. Courts will have to take a good, long look at the use of drones by law enforcement.
Will Drones Violate an Expectation of Privacy?
The answer to this question will likely be answered after drone surveillance goes too far. An ordinary person will be convicted of a crime based (in part) on drone surveillance footage. The defendant’s attorney will argue that the evidence collected by the drone should be thrown out because it violated the Fourth Amendment. The court will then be required to determine if that criminal defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. In making this decision, the court will ask:
- Did the defendant display that they had an actual or subjective expectation of privacy?
- Would society think that this expectation of privacy was reasonable?
If the answer to both of these questions is “yes,” then the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the drone surveillance infringed on this expectation, the evidence it gathered could be inadmissible.
Drones could definitely be used to violate an ordinary citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Drones are small, quiet, and maneuverable. Police could navigate a drone into a tight space that would otherwise be out of sight. Individuals in America have the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures.
Hiring a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney to Protect Your Rights
If you have been arrested for a crime in Los Angeles you should speak with an attorney. Hiring an attorney will help to make sure that your Constitutional rights are protected. If your attorney believes that evidence was gathered in violation of your rights, they will fight to have that evidence thrown out. Contact our office today to schedule a free consultation.
The Rodriguez Law Group