A court determined Thursday that the city of Baltimore’s spy plane program was unlawful, breaking the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on illegal searches, and that police enforcement in the city cannot utilize any of the data it obtained. The city stopped the Aerial Investigation Research (or AIR) program in February, which used planes and high-resolution cameras to capture what was going on in a 32-square-mile area of the city.
Local Black activist organizations sued, with the help of the ACLU, to prevent Baltimore cops from using any of the information gathered during the program’s existence. Because the program had been canceled, the city tried to argue that the issue was moot. Civil liberties campaigners were outraged by this. The ACLU stated in a statement Thursday that “government agencies have a history of secretly employing comparable technologies for other purposes, including to observe Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore in recent years.”
The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined in an en banc decision that “since the AIR program allows authorities to deduce from the entirety of individuals’ travels, we hold that accessing its data is a search and its warrantless operation violates the Fourth Amendment.” The AIR program, according to Chief Judge Roger Gregory, is “essentially a 21st-century general search, allowing the police to collect all movements,” and “allowing the police to use this power unrestrained is anathema to the ideals embodied in our Fourth Amendment.”
Persistent Surveillance Systems, a corporation run by two Texas millionaires, was in charge of the AIR program. In 2016, the Baltimore Police Department admitted to employing planes to spy on civilians, but in 2020, the city council approved a six-month pilot program that lasted until October 31st.
The AIR program, according to city officials, was designed to help reduce violent crime, and a district court had found that it was only capable of short-term surveillance and that persons weren’t always identifiable in the photographs recorded.
However, the majority of the Fourth Circuit disagreed, saying that because the AIR program “opens an intimate window” into a person’s associations and activities, it “violates the legitimate expectation of privacy individuals have in their entire travels.” The AIR program surveillance, according to the court, “exceeds mere enhancement of conventional police powers.” People are aware that security cameras on city streets may record them, or that a police officer may stake out their home and track them for a period of time…. But capturing everyone’s movements outside during the day for 45 days beyond that capacity.”
Plaintiff In a statement released Thursday, Dayvon Love, director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, stated that aerial monitoring isn’t a valid or practical means of keeping Baltimore’s communities safer. “We have always worked to confront police-racialized ism’s ideology: the notion that all urban problems must be solved primarily or entirely through the lens of policing,” Love added. “And we are grateful to Chief Judge Gregory for recognizing the significance of that challenge.”
A request for comment from the Baltimore Police Department was not immediately returned on Thursday.