Predator Drone Use By Police on U.S. Soil Should Worry Everyone

Famous for their use in the War on Terror, Predator drones have found a new role serving domestic law enforcement. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, local police in Nelson County, North Dakota, made the country’s first arrests attributed to the surveillance by the unmanned aircraft.

This recent development should be a cause for worry among private citizens everywhere, as drones have the potential to become a new arm of law enforcement. As of yet, no clear regulations have been put in place to fend off possible privacy violations. The potential for abuse of drone technology is frightening, not to mention the probable legal ramifications of frequent drone flights above our civilian skies.

This all began with the arrests of the Brossart family last June in rural North Dakota. After threatening an officer with rifles to get him off their farm, the local police asked for assistance from Predator drones owned by U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection to fly 10,000 feet overhead to find the suspects with thermal imaging, thus avoiding an armed confrontation. Six family members were then arrested and released on bail. Since last June, drones which are based at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota flew a total 24 times to assist local law enforcement.

The reasoning for the use of drones is simple: Police believe drones equipped with cameras, heat sensors, and radar all add a greater ability for law enforcement to find criminals. Firefighters see a tool for putting large-scale fires and farmers could use these unmanned aircrafts for agricultural purposes.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to provide a full regulatory framework for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and it is anticipated that the FAA will draft new rules for drones in the next few years as a long-winded review process takes place.

Fourth Amendment advocates on either end of the political spectrum should be worried. Although police are not required to have a warrant to observe property from public airspace as ruled in Florida v. Riley in 1989, in 2001, Kyllo v. United States defined thermal imaging as a search and thus requiring a warrant to be done. While the issues of the defining a “search” and the “right to privacy” have yet to be fully settled in public discourse, the Supreme Court has elaborated on the topic enough to suggest that American citizens do indeed have privacy rights.

I can think of many liberals who cried foul during the warrantless wiretapping controversy in the Bush administration. That event, plus the passing of the Patriot Act, has seemed to bring about concern towards violations of privacy for the name of security. Most recently, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) summed up this attitude quite well from his libertarian standpoint during the CNN Republican debate last November, “I have a personal belief that you never have to give up liberty for security; you can still provide security without sacrificing our Bill of Rights.”  

Hopefully, as the FAA deliberates over the eventual use of drones at home for the multiple uses mentioned earlier, the public reviews the potential drones have on infringing upon their rights as well as the quasi-1984-Big Brother aspect to it all. This issue should not break with party affiliation. It should be divided among those who advocate for personal rights and those who are willing to give their freedom for security.

Photo Credit: James_Gordon_Los_Angeles