Alaska Supreme Court says law enforcement planes cannot use cameras, zoom lenses without warrant

 March 9, 2024

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled on Friday that law enforcement cannot use cameras, binoculars or zoom lenses on aircraft to surveil citizens without a warrant. 

The ruling aims to protect Alaskans' privacy in a state where small aircraft are almost as commonly used as cars to travel.

Some argue that “because small airplane travel is so common in Alaska, and because any passenger might peer into your yard and snap a picture of you, law enforcement officials may do the same,” the ruling read.

“We disagree,” it added.

The case

The case goes all the way back to 2012, when Alaska State Troopers used a camera with a high-power zoom lens to take photos of John William McKelvey III's property in Fairbanks after getting a tip that he was growing marijuana there.

They couldn't identify the plants in his greenhouse, but the photos were enough to get a warrant to search his place, where they found marijuana plants, methamphetamine, scales, a rifle and cash.

A lower court did not suppress the search, and McKelvey was convicted of third-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance and a weapons misconduct count.

He appealed, and the appeals court reversed the decision to suppress the search.

The state Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court decision.

"Tremendous decision"

“The Alaska Constitution protects the right to be free of unreasonable searches,” the Alaska Supreme Court ruling states, according to the AP. “The fact that a random person might catch a glimpse of your yard while flying from one place to another does not make it reasonable for law enforcement officials to take to the skies and train high-powered optics on the private space right outside your home without a warrant.”

McKelvey attorney Robert John said the ruling is a “tremendous decision to protect the rights of privacy of Alaskans and hopefully set an example for the rest of the country.”

The case shows how easily privacy rights can be ignored or trampled on in today's information age, where technology makes it very easy to get surveillance data.

It was revealed in July that Section 702 of the FISA Act has been used for years to spy on Americans without warrants or notification under the guise of national security, and Biden is seeking the authority to keep doing so, which Republicans in Congress have wanted to deny him.

Biden said when seeking reauthorization of FISA that Section 702 would only be used on persons currently tagged under the act, but that could be changed by a future administration easily without passing anything new.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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