Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) popularly known as “drones” have a long history dating back to World War I as remote-controlled aerial targets according to Howeth (1963). However, their current role in surveillance is much shorter. Unmanned aircraft are predominantly used by military in the roles of surveillance and precision strikes. Advancements within the military UAS programs and the signing of FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, has facilitated the necessity to formulate a plan to regulate unmanned aircraft operating over the United States. This study will address the major concern voiced by the public’s concern regarding law enforcement using unmanned aircraft for tracking persons and collecting evidence. What are the current laws governing law enforcement use of unmanned aircraft?
There have been several legal cases involving aerial surveillance, only one using unmanned aircraft, State v. Brossart (2012). This limits the data concerning UAS, but gives a reasonable platform to base the study from. Helicopters or manned aircraft using cameras to conduct surveillance are conducting the same surveillance an unmanned aircraft would, as Molko (2013) address in his research. Detailed debates have occurred around the country concerning the Fourth Amendment and if our privacy will be lost once unmanned aircraft are given the clear to fly in National Airspace System (NAS) over the U.S. A particular public concern is law enforcement utilizing unmanned aircraft for surveillance. According to the National Conference of State Legislation (2013), “In 2013, 43 states introduced 130 bills and resolutions addressing UAS issues”. The FAA has imposed restrictions on the use of unmanned aircraft concerning safety and to comply with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. If current laws governing unmanned aircraft usage by law enforcement are left unchanged, then the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans will be violated.
State v. Brossart is the first known case involving evidence from an unmanned aircraft. Brossart’s attorney Bruce Quick condemned his arrest because the Grand Forks police used a Department of Homeland Security Predator UAS to survey the Brossart property to locate the three sons and ensure they were unarmed before police made the arrest. The state of North Dakota presented a DVD containing the recorded video of the Brossart surveillance and arrest of the three sons. The judge ruled the evidence was permissible and relevant to the case, also ruling it was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment even though it was collected without a warrant. The Brossart case is the gateway to law enforcement to utilize UAS for surveillance involving criminal investigations.
Similarly, Molko’s (2013) research investigated how similar aerial platforms conducting the same surveillance have held up in court. In the case California v. Ciraolo, the police used an aircraft flying at 1000 feet to observe the backyard...