Largely unknown to the public, drone aircraft have been used by our law enforcement for surveillance of criminal targets, a tactic that is also being carried out without a warrant.
Recent reports indicate that local police in states like North Dakota, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Agency have all used Predator drone planes domestically to help find and watch criminal suspects. The use of these drones has been done without a warrant or without much public debate on the issue by government officials. This has sparked a barrage of legal and privacy questions.
While drones should be allowed in law enforcement, drone surveillance needs to have an issued warrant instead of simply being used at the discretion of law enforcement officers. The use of a warrant would provide the practice of police drone use with a stronger legal authority to protect citizens from intruding authorities infringing on basic rights.
Americans have a clear right to privacy. The Fourth Amendment states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Surveillance by these drones underlines an unreasonable search on a person and their property. Probable cause needs to be established in a court by a judge in order for a warrant to be granted. Such warrants protect citizens from being unlawfully or unreasonably stalked, tracked, or watched by the government or law enforcement agency. Drones fly well above a target and are hard to spot by the naked eye while performing surveillance, which disregards the Fourth Amendment. It is unlawful because the state needs to prove its case first.
Some believe that drone use makes our communities safer, as it allows law enforcement to fight crime more smoothly. But safety is being weighed against privacy. By allowing the state to have a blanket ability to spy for the sake of security can foster a rise in exploitation and misuse. The state will not have to justify its actions or be held responsible for inappropriate motivations.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the courts have ruled that what property is seen in the open, even if it is in your own private backyard, is not protected by privacy laws. The courts reasoned that it is because a passing plane can be able to see it as well. But it should be made clear that a passing vehicle or person witnesses something unintentional. It is not comparable to the intentional act executed by the government.
Drones are used in warfare for spying; this utility is being applied to civilian soil. The allowance of this practice evokes the phrase by George Orwell in his novel 1984, “Big brother is watching you.” The intention is to protect the public, but good intentions are easy to corrupt. Law enforcement should always have to give a good reason for breaking constitutional rights and drone surveillance is not an exception.