The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled last week that Baltimore’s use of aerial surveillance that could track the movements of the entire city violated the Fourth Amendment.
The case, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Baltimore Police Department, challenged the Baltimore Police Department’s (BPD) use of an aerial surveillance program that continuously captured an estimated 12 hours of coverage of 90 percent of the city each day for a six-month pilot period. EFF, joined by the Brennan Center for Justice, Electronic Privacy Information Center, FreedomWorks, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Rutherford Institute, filed an amicus brief arguing that the two previous court decisions upholding the constitutionality of the program misapplied Supreme Court precedent and failed to recognize the disproportionate impact of surveillance, like Baltimore’s program, on communities of color.
In its decision, the full Fourth Circuit found that BPD’s use and analysis of its Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) data was a warrantless search that violated the Fourth Amendment. Relying on the Supreme Court’s decisions in United States v. Jones and United States v. Carpenter, the Fourth Circuit held that Carpenter—which ruled that cell-site location information was protected under the Fourth Amendment and thus may only be obtained with a warrant—applied “squarely” to this case. The Fourth Circuit explained that the district court had misapprehended the extent of what the AIR program could do. The district court believed that the program only engaged in short-term tracking. However, the Fourth Circuit clarified that, like the cell-site location information tracking in Carpenter, the AIR program’s detailed data collection and 45-day retention period gave BPD the ability to chronicle movements in a “detailed, encyclopedic” record, akin to “attaching an ankle monitor to every person in the city.”