Airborne Surveillance

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Airborne surveillance involves the use of aircraft or drones to observe activities from the sky. It is a common tool in law enforcement for tasks such as traffic monitoring, criminal pursuit, and border control. However, like all law enforcement tools, airborne surveillance is subject to the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions against unreasonable searches.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

Florida v. Riley (1989)

In Florida v. Riley, police flew a helicopter over Riley’s property and saw marijuana plants in his greenhouse through a hole in the roof. The legal issue was whether the police needed a warrant for the aerial observation. The Supreme Court held that the police did not need a warrant. The Court reasoned that the observation took place in publicly navigable airspace, in a non-intrusive manner. Therefore, Riley could not reasonably expect the interior of his greenhouse to be protected from public or official inspection from the air (Florida v. Riley, 1989).

2. California v. Ciraolo (1986)

In Ciraolo, the police flew over Ciraolo’s backyard at 1,000 feet after receiving a tip that he was growing marijuana. From the air, they could see the marijuana plants, which were not visible from the ground. The Court decided that no warrant was required. The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protection does not extend to observations made from public airspace within FAA regulations (California v. Ciraolo, 1986).

3. Dow Chemical Co. v. United States (1986)

In Dow Chemical, the EPA used an aerial mapping camera to photograph an industrial plant from navigable airspace. Dow Chemical argued this constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court held that Dow could not reasonably expect privacy for an industrial complex visible from public airspace (Dow Chemical Co. v. United States, 1986).


In conclusion, the use of airborne surveillance by law enforcement must balance efficiency with respect for Fourth Amendment rights. Key Supreme Court cases such as Florida v. Riley, California v. Ciraolo, and Dow Chemical Co. v. United States show that observations made from publicly navigable airspace generally do not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment. Understanding these principles helps to navigate the intersection of technology and privacy rights in procedural law.

Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/17/2023

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