Lawsuit challenges goverment’s drone spying program

By Bob Unruh

A court fight is going on right now over a decision by government officials to use drones to spy on private property without obtaining a search warrant.

And the eventual result undoubtedly will be watched by civil rights experts and government forces coast to coast as drones become more and more standard operating procedure.

“Americans are being swept up into a massive digital data dragnet that does not distinguish between those who are innocent of wrongdoing, suspects, or criminals. Aerial drone surveillance has become a de facto snitch for the police state,” charged constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of “Battlefield America: The War on the American People.”

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“By subjecting Americans to surveillance without their knowledge or compliance, the government has erected the ultimate suspect society. In such an environment, there is no such thing as ‘innocent until proven guilty.'”

The institute has worked with the Cato Institute to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case Long Lake Township v. Maxon.

Lawyers are calling in the document for the Michigan Supreme Court to hold government officials accountable for violating the Fourth Amendment by not obtaining a search warrant before using a drone to take aerial photographs of private property, which was not observable from the ground.

It’s all part of a years-long zoning fight.

Fifteen years ago, Long Lake Township brought a zoning action against Todd Maxon. Officials claimed he was using his five-acre property where he lives as an illegal salvage or junkyard due to having automobiles which he worked on fixing up as a hobby.

That case was settled in Maxon’s favor when it was dismissed. The township even had to reimburse part of his attorneys’ fees.

The institute reported, “However, the government did not stop in its pursuit to penalize Maxon and his wife. In 2010, 2016, 2017, and 2018—without obtaining any search warrant—township officials used a drone to take aerial photographs of the Maxons’ property, which was not visible from the ground because it is blocked by buildings and trees.”

Another zoning fight erupted and the Maxons charged that the aerial surveillance violated the 4th Amendment and could not be used as evidence.

At the trial court level, the judge ruled for the township, and then the court of appeals found that the maneuverability, speed, and stealth of drones allows them to fly directly up to an open bathroom window.

And that people do have a reasonable expectation of privacy and a warrant is required.

However, it also said such requirements are not present for civil disputes.

That set up the appeal to the state’s highest court.

The brief explains that failing such an exclusion “will create a roadmap for the government to circumvent Fourth Amendment protections by simply classifying its fines as ‘civil’ to punish people for violating its laws and ordinances.”

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