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Matthew Radefeld & Dan Juengel
Matthew A. Radefeld and Daniel A. Juengel

Will St. Louis air surveillance violate your constitutional rights?

On Behalf of | Feb 22, 2021 | Criminal Law |

St. Louis doesn’t need a plane crime surveillance system, but the city will probably get one anyway. Once implemented, it may allow police to overstep your Constitutional rights. A network of technological equipment already monitors St. Louis residents like Big-Brother. “Stingray” devices track smartphones. Stoplight cameras monitor city streets. The Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center scans the city using a wall of monitors with sound feeds and high-profile cameras. RTCC’s remote technology zooms into faces to capture the details. It “hears” shots fired and reads license plates. 

Persistent Surveillance Systems is getting closer to adding military-style, plane-mounted cameras to the city’s existing crime-fighting systems. They plan to solve crimes by capturing digital footage of people going about their daily lives. If the mayor approves the pending bill, the city will execute an 18-month service contract. PSS will then implement what they call a “Community Support Program,” but some people will always see them as spy planes.

As a resident, you must get used to the idea of planes circling low overhead. You will understand that you and everyone you know are all potential suspects. You will realize that any one of you has a good chance of a police encounter because there’s always someone watching you.

Your first and fourth amendment rights

Plane-based crime surveillance is a relatively new police department tool. Previously litigated air monitoring civil suits involved unmanned drone surveillance only. Criminal attorneys have focused on illegal and warrantless search defenses and on Fourth Amendment violations. Surprisingly, the courts have not supported this argument. Courts that have heard air surveillance cases have customarily ruled in favor of law enforcement authorities. 

  • A US District Court found that aerial surveillance didn’t violate 4th amendment rights.

  • A Florida Court decided that aerial searches did not constitute an illegal search. 

  • A California Court ruled that air surveillance simply took advantage of a “public view.”

  • A Florida Court decided that authorities didn’t need a warrant for an aerial search.

The American Civil Liberties Union vs. air surveillance

The ACLU has fought against the growing interest in police department air surveillance. When the Baltimore Police Department hosted the 2020 Persistent Surveillance Systems pilot program, the ACLU filed a civil suit seeking injunctive relief. The lawsuit alleged that air surveillance planes subjected 600,000 Baltimore residents to “…long-term, wide-area, and indiscriminate surveillance…” They further alleged that air surveillance violated Fourth and First Amendment rights.

The US District Court of Maryland ruled that the program didn’t infringe upon the plaintiff’s expectations of privacy. It didn’t violate their rights. The court also decided that air surveillance met a law enforcement need. 

When the Missouri ACLU studied existing surveillance programs, they determined that they targeted communities of color. They have fought to stop the bill that would authorize the Community Support Program contract. The ACLU also pushed Board Bill 95 as a companion law. If passed, it would allow the community to exercise some control over its own surveillance. 

The program just went on hold

Like the SLMPD’s Real Time Crime Center, PSS’s air surveillance program depends on private donor contributions. On January 26, 2021, the Texas Philanthropists who funded the Baltimore program for 11 months changed their minds about funding St. Louis’ air surveillance costs. The city won’t pay for the program, but PSS’s owner says that he can find alternate funding. 

The program is in limbo right now. Still, air surveillance, in general, presents a genuine obstacle for clients requiring criminal defense. It allows police officers to use non-traditional search methods that circumvent everyone’s civil rights. As it currently stands, the courts support this and other advanced technologies.