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The Vertical Politics of Domestic Drones

The 4th Amendment provides us the right to due process, that is the protection against unwarranted searches and seizures.  If a police officer detains us on the street or on the road to question us, there must be probable cause, otherwise as a citizen we are free to walk away from the conversation and carry on with our day.

Domestic Drones
At what altitude are the police invading our personal space?

But what if you cannot walk away because that police officer is collecting information within your personal space?  More than just being watched in a black van from across the street (something I would presume comes with a level of probable cause anyways), the police officer is actually in your home watching your movements and collecting data on you.

The rule of thumb on property rights suggest that vertically you are entitled to as much space as you can reasonably use, a ruling coming from US vs. Causby that was heavily influenced by the advent of commercial airplanes.  This means that even if it interferes with aircraft (as long as that is not the sole purpose of the use of this space), a property owner/renter is entitled to use a reasonable amount of space above their home.

Domestic drones, then, provide a new and interesting issue: without additional permits, these are being flown under 400 feet and potentially into personal space.  Theoretically these RPA’s are police officers that are collecting information, perhaps with no probable cause, at altitudes possibly equivalent to the police officer standing in your home.  Are we entitled to kick that police officer out?  Can we jam signals and take the aircraft out of our space?  Can we fly our own drones over our territory and protect our right to privacy by utilizing personal drones to defend against state drones?  Does US vs. Causby apply to more than just commercial aircraft/manned vehicles?

I have heard of cases where heat sensors have observed wall temperature and drawn conclusions (that a drug lab is present) based on extreme differences in wall temperature, but this surveillance is similar to the black van across the street watching you: it can be conducted from non-personal space to observe what is going on within your personal space.  The issue, I believe, that will arise is whether personal enjoyment of space can be extended to protecting rights to privacy, something of a chicken and the egg conundrum: sure, that space would not be needed without drones, but with drones it is needed.  Is that police officer drone actually in your house (and thereby entitling you to get rid of it) or is it across the street?

Tim O'Hair is a political blogger and a contributor to

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