Divided Court Rules Baltimore’s Continuous Aerial Surveillance is Constitutional

November 10, 2020

A divided federal appeals court has ruled that Baltimore's use of spy planes to continuously surveil the city does not violate the Fourth Amendment. The technology, known as wide-area aerial surveillance, allows police to capture high-definition video and track the movements of pedestrians and vehicles over a 32-square mile area. Although the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals acknowledged "that there are aerial surveillance programs that would transgress basic Fourth Amendment protections," the court concluded that Baltimore's program "does not violate the Constitution" and "burdens privacy substantially less than a well-established staple of existing surveillance: security cameras." Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory dissented, concluding that the Supreme Court's decision in Carpenter v. United States requiring a warrant for cell phone location data also requires police to obtain a warrant for persistent aerial surveillance. Gregory explained that "Long-term, recorded surveillance of public movements uncovers more than temporary trailing by a suspecting officer; it reveals a person's most intimate associations and activities." EPIC filed an amicus brief in Carpenter v. United States and has long fought to limit drone surveillance and other forms of aerial spying.

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