Predator drones have historically been used by American authorities in foreign countries, particularly in armed conflicts, to spy on enemy combatants. While this tactic disturbed some privacy advocates in the United States, it did not raise too many eyebrows.
More controversially, however, federal law enforcement officials have started using Predator drones to help bring criminal charges against American citizens accused of domestic crimes.
According to a recent report from the Los Angeles Times, alleged cattle thieves in North Dakota were thwarted by police after they used surveillance drones to spy on the alleged criminals. When they mount a criminal defense, the suspects are sure to challenge the cops’ invasive tactics.
Despite concerns about privacy, though, the North Dakota officials who used the Predator drone may have a solid case for the legality of their efforts.
Sources indicate that the event started this June, when a Nelson County sheriff went looking for six missing cows on a family farm. The sheriff, however, was quickly denied access to the farm by three men wielding rifles.
The sheriff feared that returning with other police officers without further intelligence could lead to a bloody clash, so, instead of invading the farm, he enlisted the aid of a Predator drone to search the 3,000 acre farm for the armed men.
So, while the sheriff, federal officials, and a SWAT team waited patiently outside the farm, a drone circled the farm from 2 miles overhead an discovered the exact location of the three men.
When the drone’s surveillance revealed that the three men were unarmed, the sheriff and his small army invaded the farm and the suspects were arrested without any further incident.
The use of the drone, however, raised suspicions amongst local residents, and a further investigation revealed that North Dakota officials had used Predator drones to level criminal charges against defendants in several other domestic investigations.
North Dakota, it seems, has unique access to these drones because federal border control authorities frequently use them to search for illegal immigrants. Because of their relationship with these officials, local law enforcement authorities are often able to borrow the drones for their own uses.
This tactic, however, was not publicly acknowledged until recently, and local residents were never afforded the opportunity to express their opinions on whether such invasive tactics should be used outside the context of an armed conflict.
Critics of the use of Predator drones, though, must reckon with old federal court decisions that explicitly allow police to use airplanes to monitor, without a search warrant, potential criminal suspects. Under this reasoning, Predator drones can be used without a search warrant as long as the activity it is watching takes place out in the open.
However, critics of the drones claim that there is a big difference between a visible, noisy airplane, and a silent, state-of-the-art drone that can view people suspected of committing a crime without being seen itself.
As law enforcement grow more accustomed to using the silent drones, their usage will likely grow more popular, so the debate over their legality will likely rage for years to come.