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East Bay Express: Drone surveillance may be unconstitutional

Courtesy of EastBayExpress.com

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern has publicly stated that the drones he wants to buy and deploy in the East Bay would be used primarily for emergency and disaster response. However, internal sheriff's office documents show that Ahern's staffers also envision using drones for traditional police work, including "intelligence gathering" and "crowd control" during large demonstrations. And some legal experts contend that if the sheriff's office follows through on its plan to use drones for such policing activity, it could violate a 2012 US Supreme Court decision on warrantless surveillance.

Ahern set off a media firestorm this fall when he attempted to gain approval from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to purchase a drone using $31,646 in grant money from the California Emergency Management Agency. Ahern then withdrew his request following loud complaints of civil liberties violations and a lack of government transparency. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation protested the absence of public debate over the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Alameda County, as well as the lack of guidelines governing drone usage. Ahern, however, is expected to renew his drone request this month, and if Alameda County does acquire a drone, it would be a first for California, which has long been an innovator in law enforcement tactics, with notable examples including SWAT teams (pioneered in Delano and Los Angeles) and anti-gang tactics such as civil injunctions.

Since Congress passed legislation in February ordering the Federal Aviation Administration to fast-track the approval of drones for use by law enforcement agencies, police and sheriff's departments across the country have been scrambling to purchase the smaller, unarmed cousins of the Predator and Reaper drones that have become an integral part of the Obama administration's ongoing war against terrorism.

However, some legal experts say American law enforcement's use of drones raises serious questions about privacy, surveillance, and warrantless searches that touch on core liberties enshrined in the Constitution. Although there are no legal opinions to date that specifically address how drones can be used within the United States, Babak Siavoshy, a teaching fellow at the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law, and John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA and fellow at The Brookings Institution, both contend that a unanimous US Supreme Court decision in January 2012 concerning warrantless surveillance may apply to the use of drones for police work.

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This article was originally published by the East Bay Express on January 2, 2013.