Jon McBride, who designs and builds drones with Digital Defense Surveillance, flies a training drone for members of the the Box Elder County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team, during a demonstration, in Brigham City, Utah. Image Credit: Rick Bowmer/AP Images

If you look up in Minnesota, you might soon realize police drones joining the birds in the sky above your head.

This is because the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has already given the green light to one little quadcopter to cruise around above its citizens, reports ThinkProgress. More will probably follow. And the problem with this is that the police can use the drone to collect evidence without obtaining a warrant first.


The HCSO says that the drone is for search and rescue missions only, however:

it seems that more may be in store. Its Unmanned Aerial Systems policy currently outlines “protocols [for] data intended to be used as evidence” and “[facilitates] law enforcement access to images and data captured by the UAS.”


ThinkProgress points out that repeated media requests, asking for the sheriff’s office to elaborate on the protocols themselves, have gone unanswered. This is quite troubling, when you consider that:

...the policy stipulates that “data collected by the [drone] not related to an active criminal investigation must be destroyed no later than 30 days,” which sounds eerily similar to incidental collection, a practice whereby innocent individuals get swept into vague and broad searches conducted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.


And from there, it’s not clear if, for instance, the collected data can be used by law enforcement for “possible prosecutions” before the 30-day limit is up.

This is a case where the technology is evolving faster than the legislation that governs it can. The Florida v. Riley case from 1989 ruled that the police don’t need a warrant to observe private property from public airspace. However, this was ruled with manned helicopters in mind, not drones. And it’s now being used as justification for warrantless aerial surveillance across the country. (We reached out to the sheriff’s office for comment and will update if we get one.)


“This means the use of drones,” ThinkProgress writes, “without first obtaining a warrant, is actually legal due to the lack of other precedent.” On top of that, federal law also doesn’t stop the police and other agencies from arming drones.

Other panoptic instances of drone use include Cessnas in Baltimore, especially in the wake of the Freddie Gray riots.


It’s similar to the problem we’re seeing in autonomous cars, in that the law hasn’t kept pace with the technology, especially in terms of insurance. In car crashes, all of a sudden it becomes complicated: was it the driver’s fault, or the system’s?


It makes sense why law enforcement officials are adapting drone usage so readily. Flying over things is more efficient, it’s faster. You can sweep larger amounts of space in shorter amounts of time. You can see over pesky things like fences and gates, go places where officers or even wiretaps cannot.

But the legality of drone usage is especially troubling because there is an invasion of privacy aspect to it. It’s a little bit weird that Minnesota’s HSCO hasn’t been clear about its intentions for the drone.


Also, what does a search and rescue drone need guns for?

Writer at Jalopnik and consumer of many noodles.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter