Federal Judge Rules Baltimore's Secret Spy Planes Violated The Constitution

The court decision sets a new precedent for whether law enforcement can use aerial surveillance technology to monitor entire cities in real-time.
Baltimore skyline aerial shot
Patrick Smith / Getty Images

A Federal Appeals Court has ruled against the Baltimore Police Department’s (BPD) use of an aerial surveillance program that monitored almost the entire city from above, calling the surveillance unconstitutional and a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Equipped with wide-area surveillance cameras originally developed for military use, Baltimore police flew spy planes that captured up to 12 hours of footage a day throughout the six month pilot of the program, known as the AIR, or Aerial Investigation Research. The program was originally deployed in secret without the knowledge of city officials, and financed by two Texas billionaire entrepreneurs who had previously invested in surveillance technology.

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“Baltimoreans need not sacrifice their constitutional rights to obtain equal governmental protection,” Chief Judge Gregory wrote in his decision for the Maryland Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The decision comes after a 2020 lawsuit filed with support from the American Civil Liberties Union attempted to block the BPD from deploying the pilot program in the first place. The lawsuit was filed by local activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Baltimore Ceasefire 365’s co-founder Erricka Bridgeford, and local community organizer and musician Kevin James. 

Though their appeal was not heard until after the pilot program was over, this decision blocked Baltimore police from accessing the data collected during that time.

“We have always been clear that the aerial surveillance program is not a legitimate or effective means of making our communities safer,” Dayvon Love, director of public policy with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said in a statement.  

This is also not the first time that the Baltimore Police Department has used this type of program. They first used this aerial surveillance program in 2016, unbeknownst to city officials. 

“It certainly had a tremendous chilling effect, especially on communities of color in Baltimore, that are already over policed,” Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney in the ACLU’s Security Project, told Motherboard. “People were disturbed by the fact that the BPD was developing a comprehensive record of all of their daytime outdoor movements.”

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An audit conducted by the Policing Policy team at New York University’s School of Law in November 2020 found that the Baltimore Police Department was lying about multiple things regarding the nature of the program.

The audit found that the Baltimore Police Department retained “a substantial majority of the aerial imagery generated during the AIR pilot” well past the 45 days they said they would. 

They also stated that the AIR program would only be used to track individuals’ movements to and from a crime scene, but the audit found that the BPD was using the data to track people across multiple days. In one case, the police even watched the home of a suspect’s mother for two days.

The surveillance planes are owned by Persistent Surveillance Systems, which also employs the analysts who review the data and footage for BPD. Although the BPD stated that the AIR imagery could not be used to identify individuals, PSS also had access to the city’s CCTV cameras and Automated License Plate Readers.

“The court held that this kind of persistent surveillance, which is warrantless, violates a reasonable expectation of privacy and violates the constitution,” Gorski told Motherboard. “We think it's a very important precedent, especially as other cities may be considering deploying this kind of technology.”