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Police use of high tech drones is on the rise, and regulations aren't keeping up with them

Sebastian Cahill   

Police use of high tech drones is on the rise, and regulations aren't keeping up with them
  • Police departments cross-country are using drones in their daily operations.
  • New drones have the capability to break through glass, enter buildings, and open doors.

This past Fourth of July, some law enforcement agencie deployed drones to watch for danger at community events. And though police are increasingly relying on high-tech tools, laws across the country aren't keeping up with preventing potential abuses of police power.

Drones, also referred to as unmanned aircraft systems, have a variety of uses, especially for law enforcement. According to reporting from NBC News, the newest and most powerful drones can have capabilities such as high-powered cameras, and can break through glass, open doors, or fly into buildings. They even allow police or other types of law enforcement to make contact with people held in hostage situations.

Though, according to data up to 2021 from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 44 or more states have some kind of laws or resolutions addressing drones, each state has separate regulations and codes, leaving some police departments with far more access to drones than others. For example, in regulations up to 2021, only 15 states mentioned the need for a warrant when law enforcement used drones. All 15 of those states have exceptions allowing the police to operate drones without warrants in extreme or exceptional circumstances.

In part because of the confusing laws cross-country, new drone abilities are appealing to police, but less so to citizens. The same NBC News article reports that the Fourth circuit US Court of Appeals found the 2021 AIR program in Baltimore, Maryland — a state without regulations around police use of drones — that conducted constant surveillance using drones was unconstitutional.

Though the Baltimore Police Department claimed, according to the case's published opinion, that they had "no intention of accessing the data to track and potentially identify individuals," the majority opinion found the risk of surveillance outweighed its possibility to mitigate crimes and violated the Fourth Amendment.

"Allowing the police to wield this power unchecked is anathema to the values enshrined in our Fourth Amendment," reads the majority opinion, authored by Chief Judge Roger Gregory. "The AIR program is like a 21st-century general search, enabling the police to collect all movements, both innocent and suspected, without any burden to 'articulate an adequate reason to search for specific items related to specific crimes.'"

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