Appeals Court Rules Aerial Police Tracking of Citizens Violates Fourth Amendment

Baltimore kept tabs on citizens' movement across 90 percent of the city, without a warrant, to investigate crimes.


The use of surveillance planes in Baltimore to track people's movement for long periods without a warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The case revolved around an air surveillance program run by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) called Aerial Investigation Research (AIR). Beginning in 2016, BPD announced it would be using cameras attached to planes to conduct aerial surveillance to fight crime. The program was discontinued in response to public anger over the snooping.

But in 2019, the program returned as AIR. The city approved a contract between BPD and a private company in April 2020. During daylight hours, the planes would fly over the city recording images of the outdoor activity of about 90 percent of Baltimore. The images were stored and could be used to track the movements of individuals connected to particular crimes like homicides, carjackings, and armed robberies.

But the police did not request a warrant to go back and look at this collected data. A community activist group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sued, noting that its advocacy involves traveling to and visiting locations of crimes and gun violence, meaning that its members' movements could be tracked by AIR. It argued that this unwarranted surveillance constituted a violation of members' Fourth Amendment rights and asked the courts to issue an injunction to stop it.

Concerns about the use of aerial surveillance grew throughout 2020 into 2021 as Americans discovered the Department of Homeland Security used drones to spy on protesters who took to the streets to demand policing reform after George Floyd's death. Among those who signed on to amici briefs supporting Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle were the NAACP, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the limited-government conservatives of the FreedomWorks Foundation.

On Thursday, judges from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a lower court decision and agreed with the ACLU. The majority opinion, written by Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory, determined that "because the AIR program enables police to deduce from the whole of individuals' movements, we hold that accessing its data is a search, and its warrantless operation violates the Fourth Amendment."

The majority opinion draws heavily from the Supreme Court's 2018 Carpenter v. United States decision, which held that warrantless tracking of people via their cellphone location data violated the Fourth Amendment. In that opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "A person does not surrender all Fourth Amendment protection by venturing into the public sphere." That explanation is used here by the 4th Circuit to explain why BPD can't use aerial surveillance data for the same purpose.

"Carpenter solidified the line between short-term tracking of public movements—akin to what law enforcement could do '[p]rior to the digital age'—and prolonged tracking that can reveal intimate details through habits and patterns," Gregory wrote. "The latter form of surveillance invades the reasonable expectation of privacy that individuals have in the whole of their movements and therefore requires a warrant."

Gregory goes on to compare the AIR program to "attach[ing] an ankle monitor" to every person in Baltimore. If police determine that someone is connected to a crime, that person's past six weeks of movements would be stored via AIR.

Baltimore suspended the program in February of this year, which the police then tried to use to get the case declared moot to avoid a ruling. But the court majority determined that the debate over the use of aerial surveillance constitutes a "live controversy" and ruled anyway. The lower court's decision has been reversed and the case remanded back for reconsideration.

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  1. The fbi also has constant areial flights spying on LA

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  2. I wonder what sort of exception will be invented for the 1/6 unarmed 70 year old “insurrectionists”.

    1. No need. A federal agent will be following 5 steps behind them at all times.

  3. But what about speeding?

  4. Y’all read this:

    Louisiana State Police clung to crash theory to explain Ronald Greene’s death, AP reports

    This is how they do it in Louisiana. The judges, prosecutors and cops are all lying corrupt mfers. It’s ingrained in their DNA. If they’re not outright liars they well practiced in closing their eyes and ears. This is what happens when you’re raised to worship fucking cops.

    1. They’re all democrats too, you fucking pile of human garbage.

      1. what’s you problem JO

        it’s Louisiana you idiot, there are NO Democrats running anything there, Especially the Police and Courts

        and yeah low life, Republicans ARE confirmed Racist Murderers, Check out who Derek has been voting for fool

        And Donny the Grifter is your idea of a King you COULD Worship

        you ARE a Pig

    2. Weren’t you still pushing the “Brian Sicknick was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher” theory as late as last week even when NYT reversed itself and abandoned that narrative 5 months ago?

      1. Aww, you don’t like the fact folks think Insurrectionist Low Lifes need to be put down like the Rabid RATS they are

        1. Cool. Now do Antifa and the George Floyd protesters.

  5. I’m sure this particular police program would be run with the same integrity and honor as the gun trace task force.

    1. you DO mean Fast and Furious, right?

      1. 8 cops ran the gun trace task force. In reality it was a criminal enterprise. 8 cops now in jail serving sentences between 12 years and 25 years.

  6. I’m guessing neo libs and other communist assholes that have infected our federal government, military, law enforcement and intelligence services will just ignore any of these rulings anyway. And the statist jerks will cheer them on Twatter and FuckBook.

    1. Note to Putz

      the LEFT is the ones that got the Rulings you MORON

      when did the ACLU go GOP?

      Blithering Boob

  7. >>to investigate crimes

    ongoing or completed?

  8. The fact that the people we pay to enforce the law didn’t care that they were violating our Constitutional rights should scare the crap out of everyone. But it doesn’t because over half of voters thought is was a good idea to elect a senile President who suffers from dementia to lead us. Sheesh!

    1. Not so. Over half the voters legitimately voting put their mark for DJT. Then TPTB got to work and made everyone THINK the Sleepy One got more than half the votes.
      And THAT scam/scandal is being unravelled slowly, but ever so surely. Heads SHOULD rolll.. but likely won’t.

      1. When are you Morons going to Accept the Nation would rather see you with your inards all over the Street then See Donny at the White House

        America doesn’t care what Inbred Low Lifes want, feel or Pretend, since you have all proven you are way too stupid to even attempt thought

        why the hell would anyone care what chicken rapers think?

  9. well it aint working baltimore is a crime ridden 3rd world murder capitol

    1. Maryland is a Police State there fool

      When you ALLOW the Police to run Criminal Enterprises the State becomes a Pit

      You want Peace and Quiet and Respect

      Then anytime a Cop is found Dirty, you EXECUTE the ENTIRE FORCE

      If One is Dirty then they MUST KNOW, and if they didn’t take him down on the 1st offense, then they are ALL Complicit and deserve to be DEAD!

      Cops ain’t Soldiers, Soldiers get shot on the SPOT for disregarding Orders

  10. Enemy of the State.

  11. It’s a private company voluntarily working with the state. What’s the big deal?

    1. Wow

      and your Moniker just screams

      “I AM A MORON”

      Thanks for the Proof

  12. I can see from this comment section that the folks that Subscribe really can’t read

    You Folks really need to put some stories together that will bring some educated readers, you know, folks that dropped out of High School rather then these morons you have on here that got kicked out of Kindergarten, yeah guys, that is ALL you are attracting, a Turd gets Flies that are Brighter then this bunch

    1. Your description funnily enough would fit a good number of Baltimoreans. The same cultural traits you despise in poor whites you celebrate in poor blacks. See Thomas Sowell “Black Rednecks and White Liberals.”

  13. The dissenting opinion in this ruling is based entirely upon Baltimore’s high murder rate. So, when times are tough, it’s okay to overlook that whole “Bill of Rights” thing.

    Idiots in black robes.

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