Predator Drones Used In Domestic Police Action

The LA Times on December 10 reported that Predator drones such as those now being used by the Air Force and CIA were used to support police in their investigation of cattle rustling. Theft of livestock has long been a serious matter, but regulations and procedures typically make it difficult to sell stolen cattle. According to Fred Frederikson of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, “all horses, mules and cattle leaving [North Dakota] must be brand inspected.” And in case of thefts? “all the brand inspectors in the state will be notified of the missing animals, as they are any time an animal is reported missing to the stockmen’s association. All descriptions go out, including color, sex, location and color of tags and brands.”

The LA Times story explains “Flying out of earshot and out of sight, a Predator B can watch a target for 20 hours nonstop, far longer than any police helicopter or manned aircraft.” Given that, mightn’t this raise the same constitutional objections that GPS tracking have? The NY State Court of Appeals and some others have struck down warrantless GPS tracking of a suspect in 2005, though federal courts have split and the question has now moved to the Supreme Court. The Electronic Privacy Information Center’s briefs and coverage on the issue are quite interesting. Though the GPS tracking issue isn’t settled, I’m curious if we now have to wonder if police can track suspects by drone without a warrant.

This case doesn’t directly raise that question — the reports say police had a search warrant for the property, and this wasn’t a matter of following suspects, but identifying their location on the property — but it’s close enough to make me uncomfortable. Well, that and the whole posse comitatus issue.