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Fourth Amendment Victory: Appeals Court Strikes Down Baltimore’s Use of City-Wide, Daytime Aerial Surveillance to Spy On and Track Citizens

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Published on: July 2, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. — In a victory for efforts to curtail the government’s spying powers, a federal appeals court has found that the City of Baltimore’s use of aerial surveillance to continuously track and monitor the activities of citizens throughout the city violated the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Baltimore Police Department found that the city’s use of an Aerial Investigative Research program, which uses plane-based cameras to record ground movements and was integrated with other city surveillance systems, unreasonably intrudes on the privacy of individuals. A coalition of policy groups including The Rutherford Institute, Electronic Freedom Foundation, National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Brennan Center for Justice filed an amicus brief in Leaders arguing that the comprehensive collection of data and tracking of over half a million people every day is a severe infringement on privacy rights and chills the exercise of the rights of speech and assembly protected by the First Amendment

“We’re on the losing end of a technological revolution that has already taken hostage our computers, our phones, our finances, our entertainment, our shopping, our appliances, and now, it’s focused its sights on us from the air,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “By subjecting Americans to surveillance without their knowledge or compliance and then storing the data for later use, the government has erected the ultimate suspect society. In such an environment, there is no such thing as ‘innocent until proven guilty.’”

Concerned over rising crime rates within the city, in 2016, the Baltimore Police Department began secretly implementing an Aerial Investigative Research (AIR) program that deployed three planes equipped with cameras to record activities and the movements of persons throughout the entire city during daytime hours. When news reports revealed the existence of the AIR program, it was shut down due to strong public opposition. But the program was revived when a new police chief was appointed and its implementation was approved by the city council. Under the reimplemented program, airborne cameras continuously captured video of 90% of the city during daylight hours. The captured images detected individuals and tracked their movements. Although individuals appear as a pixilated dot on the AIR images and cannot be identified from those images, the AIR system was also integrated with other surveillance systems, including over 800 surveillance cameras using facial recognition technology and automated license plate readers that can track the movements of vehicles. In April 2020, a coalition of community organizers and activists sued the city, asserting that AIR’s pervasive surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that because the AIR program enables police to deduce the whole of individuals’ movements, accessing its data is a warrantless search that violates the Fourth Amendment. In their amicus brief, The Rutherford Institute and its coalition partners argued that the AIR program’s capacity to track individuals is just as objectionable as the government’s use of cell phone location information, which the U.S. Supreme Court found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

Case History

December 2, 2020 • Rutherford Institute Challenges Baltimore’s Use of City-Wide, Daytime Aerial Surveillance to Spy On and Track Citizens

The court’s opinion in Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Baltimore Police Department

The coalition’s amicus brief in Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Baltimore Police Department

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