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Appeals court: Baltimore can continue aerial surveillance

November 5, 2020 GMT

BALTIMORE (AP) — A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a judge’s ruling that allowed Baltimore police to continue an aerial surveillance program.

Baltimore and its citizens have a strong interest in the Aerial Investigation Research program “not being strangled in its infancy,” a divided three-judge panel from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in its majority opinion.

“The AIR program is carefully designed to slow the recurrent increases in violent crime in Baltimore,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote.

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The Baltimore Police Department’s pilot project was scheduled to take its final flight last Saturday, the Baltimore Sun reported. Police planned to consult with the program’s vendor, independent evaluators and others to analyze the program’s effectiveness.

In April, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett denied a request from the American Civil Liberties Union to temporarily block the program.

Wilkinson said the majority concluded that Bennett did not abuse his discretion in denying the ACLU’s request for a preliminary injunction. The program “is merely a tool used to track short-term movements in public, where the expectation of privacy is lessened,” the judge said.

“Although we conclude that AIR does not invade a reasonable expectation of privacy, our decision should not be interpreted as endorsing all forms of aerial surveillance. We only address the AIR program, which has built-in limitations designed to minimize invasions of individual privacy,” he wrote.

Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote a dissenting opinion in which he said the “dragnet” aerial surveillance program violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures and concluded the plaintiffs are entitled to a preliminary injunction to halt its operation.

“No crime rate can justify warrantless aerial surveillance of an entire city, wholly unchecked by the judiciary,” Gregory wrote. “The Government’s desire to find innovative solutions to respond to crime is also generally in the public interest, but not when that purpose comes at the expense of the public’s constitutional rights.”

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Under the six-month test that began in May, aircraft outfitted with wide-angle cameras have been sweeping over Baltimore during the day to capture images at a rate of one per second. The images can then be stitched together to create a continuous visual record of the city.

Police have said the resolution of the images is not sharp enough to identify a person’s face, ethnicity, sex or clothing; or a vehicle’s color, make, model and license plate. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said the images can only be used to investigate homicides, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings.