Unmanned drones may be coming to a police force near you. Or maybe not.

Law Enforcement and the Use of Drones

In Florida v. Riley, 488 U.S. 445 (1989), the Supreme Court ruled “that police officials do not need a warrant to observe an individual’s property from public airspace.”

In this case, a Florida county sheriff used a helicopter to examine the contents of a greenhouse which was not directly visible from the road. Riley argued that the aerial search violated his “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The trial court agreed, but was overturned by the Court of Appeals, which sided with the state. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals decision and the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Florida Supreme Court.

Individual states, however, may provide more protection from aerial surveillance.

The New Mexico Court of Appeals recently held that a warrantless helicopter search of a greenhouse was violative of Article 2, § 10 of the New Mexico Constitution.
How these rulings may apply to unmanned surveillance is also open to interpretation. According to Representative John Lesch, sponsor of Minnesota House File 2552, in an interview with Adam Lockhart, Principal Attorney Editor at Thomson Reuters:
…drones have the potential for increasing the frequency of surveillance because drones are less expensive to operate than manned aerial surveillance. H.F. 2552 would provide enhanced Fourth Amendment protection relative to drone surveillance, by requiring a search warrant in most situations.

H.F 2552 was passed by the Minnesota Senate and presented to the governor on May 19, 2016.

As of April 2014, “five states have enacted legislation limiting the use of drones by law enforcement” and “bills in another 17 jurisdictions have been introduced to do the same.”

In California, a bill that would restrict the use of unmanned drones in warrantless surveillance was passed by the state Senate in 2014, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.