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Can Drones Surveil Property Without Violating 4th Amendment?

A case in the Michigan Supreme Court is raising new questions about the right to privacy surrounding drone surveillance by local governments, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Todd Maxon saw a drone hover over his lakeside Michigan property, deployed by the local Long Lake Township to surveil the Maxons’ land over a zoning dispute involving his hobby of fixing up old vehicles.

The Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments in October, and a ruling in the coming months could set a precedent nationally. The township has said the drone images were of areas beyond the Maxons’ home and hence not protected by the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches” without probable cause. The Maxons’ attorney rejected that logic, saying that "When the government hires somebody to fly a drone all over your property ... in order to gather evidence, that’s a search under the Fourth Amendment" and therefore a violation of privacy. Privacy law has not kept up with the pace of technology, according to several experts. A decision in the Michigan case could influence how other courts approach the issue – and potentially lead the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the long-contested topic of drone surveillance.


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