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Divided appeals court rules BPD surveillance plane program was unconstitutional

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Posted at 4:03 PM, Jun 24, 2021

BALTIMORE — A deeply divided panel of judges on the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled that an aerial surveillance program formerly used by the Baltimore Police Department was unconstitutional.

Chief Judge Robert Gregory wrote the majority opinion of eight judges over the dissent of seven others.

"I do not accept, however, that some neighborhoods in Baltimore are hopeless absent this aerial surveillance. Wherever they call home—from East Baltimore to West Baltimore, from Sandtown to Roland Park, from Cherry Hill to Locust Point— Baltimoreans need not sacrifice their constitutional rights to obtain equal governmental protection. And even amidst strife and struggle, hope and talent still flourish."

Judge Harvey Wilkinson wrote a scathing dissent.

"This imposition of a straitjacket on Baltimore’s officials is most unfortunate. The people most affected by a problem are denied by this court a say in ameliorating it. Our direction to them is simply to endure their disenfranchisement. Baltimoreans face grave challenges that are difficult enough without our interference. The briefest repetition is required here. Three hundred and forty-eight people were murdered in Baltimore in 2019."

The ruling comes more than a year after a Federal District Court judge green lit the program, which was affirmed by a three judge panel on the Fourth Circuit.

Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and the ACLU initially filed the suit , contending the plane was an invasion of citizens privacy under the First and Fourth Amendments.

Others disputed that saying the surveillance amounted to only a pixel or small dot that helped investigators determine if anyone was in a particular area when a violent crime occurred.

The plane stopped flying last Halloween after being contracted to fly for only six months. Judge Gregory however said that does not make the case moot.

Court documents say the plane compiled a total 1,916.6 hours of coverage including 6,683,312 images.

Police say most of that was deleted by February 2.

According to a report put out by the Baltimore Police Department last September, the program helped investigators clear six homicides, six shootings, four armed robberies and a car-jacking case in its first three months.

The ruling does not address manned aerial surveillance overall, which has come before the U.S. Supreme Court on multiple previous occasions.

In each of those cases, the justices ruled manned warrantless aerial surveillance did not violate a person’s full expectation of privacy.

Read the entire ruling below.