When Drones Respond to 911 Calls

It can take 30 seconds or less to get a response to your 911 call, but it will not be a uniformed officer that shows up first thing. Instead, police in some California cities and across the country are utilizing drones as first responders that can make it to the scene before a human body can get there.  

Advantages of Drones

Drones have been used as first responders since they got their start in Chula Vista in 2018, and their use can be helpful in a number of circumstances. They are equipped with powerful cameras that can scan an area for blocks, or, if necessary, they have the capacity to zoom in on a specific location or to read an address or license plate. They can witness and record crimes as they occur, providing law enforcement with details and data that can inform officer response to critical situations. 

Examples of Drone Benefits

Law enforcement has been struggling with a crisis of confidence from the public in recent years, so whatever they can do to improve their image is highly valued. Specific issues that have been addressed through the use of drones here in California recently include:

  • They clarified that the objects being carried by suspects were not guns, giving officers the confidence to approach with less aggression and use of force;
  • They caught a robbery on camera, clearly taping the suspects, enabling a quick apprehension and conviction.
  • They have been used to communicate in hostage situations.

Privacy Issues

Of course, no new program comes without some caveats. There are those who have serious concerns about privacy rights and the ethical use of footage obtained by drones. Presumably, there will be more footage for agencies to manage, and there are questions about who gets access to that footage, how long it will be retained, and whether scenes showing positive police action will be shared publicly, while footage of police misconduct might be buried. These matters are addressed differently by each jurisdiction. While departments generally do not allow recordings of places where people reasonably expect privacy, such as in neighborhood backyards, they make an exception when there is an emergency or when they have a warrant. As to who gets to see the videos, departments across the state claim it cannot be released under current records laws, although that is being challenged in court. And while there is no disputing that drones can aid police work in multiple circumstances, the government will also have access to terabytes of information on citizen movements that are unrelated to criminal activity, and, to date, the courts have labeled that an invasion of privacy that is objectionable. In fact, constant aerial surveillance in Baltimore was ruled a breach of 4th Amendment search and seizure rights in 2021, although that case was unlike California’s use of drones, in that here drones are deployed only in response to 911 calls, not to conduct general surveillance.  

Legal Questions

The use of drones has encountered legal challenges, with more surely to come. If you are facing criminal charges, whether drones were involved in the case or not, the savvy criminal defense attorneys at Boertje & Associates in San Diego can help. Schedule a confidential consultation today.

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