An unmanned aircraft unit led by the Grand Forks County sheriff's department flew its first nighttime mission after four suspects fled during a traffic stop, department officials said Monday.
Officials said the drone team was contacted after a K-9 unit was unable to locate the occupants of a vehicle that was pulled over about 2:20 a.m. Sunday in rural Larimore, about 30 miles west of Grand Forks.
The aircraft discovered one of the suspects in a corn field, although he ran away before deputies could find his location, officials said. Two suspects were eventually arrested on the scene, and a third was taken into custody later.North Dakota has a history of making the news with regards to law enforcement drone use. In 2011, Nelson County Sheriff's deputies used a predator drone for aerial surveillance while investigating and ultimately arresting a suspect. The suspect's Fourth Amendment challenge to the use of the drone did not succeed.
The Fox article includes some commentary concluding that the Grand Forks incident does not raise any legal concerns. I think that is correct. North Dakota has no laws restricting the use of drones by law enforcement. And the drone in this case was used to conduct aerial surveillance of a person's outdoor movements, so there does not appear to be any infringement on a Fourth Amendment reasonable expectation of privacy.
It is also worth noting that this sort of drone use would be permitted in states with warrant requirements for government drone use as long as the states include an exception to the warrant requirement in scenarios that involve fleeing suspects. Illinois, for example, includes an exception to its warrant requirement in Section 167/15(3) of its drone regulations in cases where "swift action is needed to . . . forestall the imminent escape of a suspect."
State legislatures that are considering or debating laws requiring warrants for drone use should give serious thought to including similar exceptions to their warrant requirements. The most recent North Dakota incident shows how drones can be effective at locating fleeing suspects at night. And if police have the technology to easily locate fleeing suspects, there will be less pressure to use heightened, and possibly deadly, force to apprehend the suspect at the scene.