A Michigan case headed to the state’s Supreme Court could help establish clear boundaries for the government’s use of drones — without a warrant — in order to collect evidence to use against private citizens.
According to reports, Michigan’s high court signaled this week that it would consider the case of a family in Long Lake Township whose home was surveilled for a period of about two years by local zoning officials. Todd and Heather Maxon were reportedly engaged in a dispute regarding the five-acre property used for auto repair services.
Their legal headache dates back to 2007, when officials claimed that they were illegally using the property to store junk. The following year, they scored a victory in court and reached a settlement with the city.
According to the terms of that agreement, officials dropped the lawsuit, reimbursed the couple $3,000, and promised not to use “the same facts and circumstances which were revealed during the course of discovery” to pursue an investigation into possible zoning violations.
When the township updated its zoning policies years later, however, officials received the authority to fly drones over private property in order to ensure zoning compliance and, after paying a drone operator $1,200 to do so, determined that the Maxons were in violation. The couple’s lawsuit alleges that local authorities did not secure a warrant before ordering the drone to be flown over their property on multiple occasions.
The Maxons took the municipal agency to court and secured representation from the Institute for Justice, which determined that their constitutional rights had been violated.
For years, Long Lake Township officials flew a sophisticated drone over the Maxon’s property—taking detailed photos and videos as part of a zoning dispute.
— Institute for Justice (@IJ) May 24, 2023
An appeals court determined in September that officials could use the evidence they gathered from the warrantless surveillance regardless of whether obtaining it constituted a violation of the Maxons’ rights.
“This is precisely the kind of snooping the Fourth Amendment exists to guard against, and we look forward to arguing exactly that to the state Supreme Court justices,” said attorney Mike Greenberg.
Todd Maxon also issued a statement in light of the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case.
“Like every American, I have a right to be secure on my property without being watched by a government drone,” he said. “I’m thrilled the court will be hearing our arguments so that we can vindicate that right for everyone.”