Arlington police are testing small unmanned aircraft designed to take high-resolution video and photos of traffic accidents, hostage situations, pursuits of suspects and other emergency situations too dangerous to send personnel.This technology raises all sorts of Fourth Amendment questions which I fear will be answered destructively to those rights given the current makeup of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the 5th Circuit, and the US Supreme Court. For example, is something in plain view if you can only see it by flying a toy helicopter with a camera over my back fence to peer onto my property? That wasn't a question that would have ever occurred to the people who wrote the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, but I suspect the practice wouldn't be well received.
Data from the testing, which will continue through next January, will help Arlington and law enforcement agencies across the nation evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of using such remote-controlled surveillance devices for public safety purposes, Police Chief Theron Bowman said.
The aircraft, which look like oversized toy helicopters, can also be equipped with night-vision cameras or thermal-imaging equipment to help officers locate suspects or victims thrown from crash sites, he said.
"These devices are literally eyes in the sky to us," Bowman said. "They have the potential to help law enforcement and the department become more efficient working with just a few people instead of having to employ many people" in certain situations.
For example, Bowman said the aircraft could quickly take hundreds of photographs of a multi-vehicle pileups, allowing a roadway to be opened hours sooner than if an accident investigator was taking pictures from the ground.
The city, working with the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Justice Department, is participating in a national evaluation program. Its data will help develop training and equipment standards for agencies that use the aircraft as crime-fighting tools.
Both the Houston and Miami Dade police departments have also tested unmanned aircraft, and other cities have expressed an interest, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said. He added that his agency does not disclose who has applied, citing security and privacy reasons.
"Eventually, it's conceivable police departments could be authorized to conduct operational flights," Dorr said. (See the rest.)
All sorts of other issues arise: What metrics should be assessed to judge whether such technology "works"? What restrictions should be put on information and pictures gathered? Who should have access to it? What should it be used for? What uses should be prohibited? Should the video be a public record (I tend to think so)? What other questions are raised by this development? Let me know in the comments.