Drone technology was once reserved for the U.S. military. The military still uses drones to deliver bombs or conduct surveillance of hostile installations. But as what often happens, technology once designed for military use has trickled down to civilian use. Global positioning satellite (GPS) devices were once exclusively used for military action and are now a staple of everyday life in our digital world. Drones, although not indispensable as GPS is, are now woven into the fabric of our lives. The devices, when fitted with cameras, could fly into dangerous areas like brush fires, large crowds, or hover above a traffic jam so that traffic planners can reroute traffic.

Miami-Dade drug interdiction officers used the technology in a novel way recently. Investigators flew a drone over a drug deal between a suspected dealer and an informant to record the transaction. Prudently, the drug cops obtained a search warrant approved by a judge before they launched their operation. The suspect was under investigation for drug distribution and weapons offenses.

According to the Miami Herald, the suspect was armed while dealing with drugs, specifically crack cocaine, from the secrecy of the backyard of his home. The footage obtained by the drone from 3,100 feet above the suspect’s home shows him crossing the small, fenced-in backyard, to the opposite side of the home. The footage from the unmanned device next shows him reaching over the top of the fence to hand an object to a person on the other side of the fence. The police arranged for controlled drug buys through informants to justify obtaining the search warrant for drone surveillance. The clip made available to the media appears to show the suspect walk into the backyard from the home as if the suspected dealer kept his stash in the house and then sell it over the fence.

The police said that they had information the alleged drug dealer would arm himself with a firearm while conducting the drug deals. Additionally, the neighborhood in which the alleged drug dealing occurred is known as a violent neighborhood plagued by shootings and gunplay. The officers wrote that using a drone would allow them to conduct their covert operations from a safe distance while preserving evidence.

The police used that evidence to advance their investigation. Based on the recorded drug transaction, investigators applied for and received a search warrant for the home. Investigators seized a large number of narcotics and illegal firearms and arrested the suspect, who is now awaiting trial.

According to the report appearing in the Miami Herald, the Miami-Dade Police Department uses eight (8) drones. This was the first investigation in which they used a drone to gather evidence in real-time. Previous drone usage involved flying over murder scenes and recording the scene to preserve what it looked like at the time of the killing.

Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter surveillance have been upheld as constitutionally permissible searches under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Police have mostly replaced loud, costly, and conspicuous aircraft with small, unmanned, significantly less expensive, and potentially more intrusive drones. The potential for privacy invasion and abuse is of great concern to criminal defense attorneys in Florida if police expand the use of drones in a criminal investigation. The national trend is headed in that direction.

A study conducted in 2018 by experts in drone technology from Bard College revealed that 900 governmental agencies in the United States bought drones in 2018. Law enforcement agencies were the largest group of purchasers. Law enforcement agencies could use drone technology to augment body camera use. Body camera use is widespread among police agencies now. It has gone a long way to right wrongs committed by police officers who fabricated evidence while exonerating officers who were accused of violating people’s civil rights.

The possibility that police will use drone technology to spy on people without judicial authority is an affront to our civil rights. Law enforcement agencies often refuse to disclose operational policies for their drone use. The shroud of secrecy breeds suspicion that the clandestine use of drones by police to record criminals pushes the boundaries of constitutional limits. Imagining a small drone flying up to a window of a house and peering inside, then gliding away with footage of someone’s most private space is not difficult. Similarly, law enforcement officers could fly their drones into people’s yards, garages, and up to their cars lawfully parked in a driveway without ever being detected.

On the one hand, using drones in this manner is highly intelligent. Flying drones to record clandestine drug deals protects the safety of the officers and witnesses. Drones also could defeat counter-surveillance set up by equally intelligent people to detect police infiltration of unlawful activities. It is a high tech game of cat and mouse.

The ends never justify the means when civil liberties are at stake. The efficient use of technology to surveil people who are suspected of committing crimes is intolerable in our society unless police are willing to follow the rules.

Technological advances far outpace legal precedent. Florida’s legislation tried to keep pace by enacting a statute that dictates when police could use drones without a warrant. Florida Statutes §934.50 limits drone use without a warrant to minimal circumstances. To use a drone without a warrant in Florida, the police may only use it to protect the life that is in danger or prevent severe property damage if they first have reasonable suspicion that such action is imminently needed, while searching for a missing individual, stop a terror attack, stop an escaping person, or to prevent the destruction of evidence.

Florida’s legislature has debated more restrictive use on drone technology. In 2019, the House debated a bill that would allow law enforcement to use drones to record vehicular traffic or monitor gatherings exceeding 50 people without obtaining a search warrant. The state Senate squashed the bill without debate. A similar act is anticipated to be introduced again in 2020.

Musca Law’s Search and Seizure Lawyers Fight to Protect Your Rights

Police must act within constitutional restrictions. If they do not, they risk evidence being thrown out of court after a motion to suppress. Our search and seizure lawyers understand the importance of fighting against unconstitutional police activity. In essence, it often means the difference between a dismissal or a conviction and potentially lengthy prison term. Call Musca Law today at (888) 484-5057 to learn more if police searched you or your home, with or without a warrant.

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