Warrantless Drone Surveillance Lawsuit Appealed to Michigan Supreme Court

Homeowners and Institute for Justice Ask Michigan Supreme Court to Uphold Fourth Amendment Protections Against Warrantless Surveillance Using Drones

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · October 27, 2022

ARLINGTON, Va.—Can the government pilot a low-flying drone over your property without a warrant and then use the evidence against you in court? That’s the question at the heart of an application for appeal filed with the Michigan Supreme Court today on behalf of Todd and Heather Maxon. For two years, the government flew a sophisticated drone over Todd and Heather Maxons’ property to take detailed photographs and videos, all without ever seeking a warrant. Now, the Maxons, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), are asking the Michigan Supreme Court to hold that the government violated their Fourth Amendment rights and can’t use its illegally obtained photos and videos to punish them in court.

“This is bigger than just some drones flying over my home,” said Todd Maxon. “If I’m not safe from this kind of surveillance, nobody will be.”

Todd spends his free time fixing up vehicles on his five-acre property in rural Long Lake Township, located in northern Michigan. He keeps those vehicles away from public view and he doesn’t bother his neighbors. But that doesn’t matter to officials in Long Lake Township’s zoning enforcement office. For years, officials have been trying to pin someviolation of Long Lake’s zoning code on the Maxons. The government first brought a code enforcement lawsuit against them in 2007, claiming they’d illegally stored “junk” on the property. The Maxons fought the case and won, with the government agreeing to a favorable settlement in which it agreed to drop the lawsuit against them and reimbursed the Maxons for their attorneys’ fees.

Less than a decade later, Long Lake amended its zoning code and soon afterwards used a drone to surveil the Maxons’ home. Over two years, it flew all over their property, taking intrusive, high-resolution photographs and videos of their home and backyard, all without ever seeking a warrant. Now the government wants to use those photos and videos as evidence in a zoning enforcement lawsuit to punish the couple for alleged code violations on their property.

“If the government wants to conduct intrusive surveillance like this, the Fourth Amendment requires that it get a warrant,” said IJ Attorney Mike Greenberg. “The zoning authority’s failure to even try to get one shows their indifference to Michiganders’ constitutional rights.”

In September, the Michigan Court of Appeals decided that even if the drone flights violated the Maxons’ Fourth Amendment rights, the government should still be allowed to use the evidence obtained from the unconstitutional search in court. According to the court, the Fourth Amendment’s protection doesn’t apply to investigators hunting for zoning code violations. In the court’s view, any evidence the government uncovers can be used against you in civil code-enforcement proceedings, even if the government violated your rights when uncovering that evidence.

But the Fourth Amendment applies to all government officials, and our right to be free from unreasonable searches doesn’t turn on what those searches are hoping to discover. If the lower court’s decision stands, the government would have unfettered discretion to spy on whomever it wishes. Such judicial slicing and dicing would eviscerate Michiganders’ rights by giving governments a free pass to blatantly violate the Fourth Amendment when looking for zoning code infractions. It would mean government drones could surveil anyone officials want, at any time, without consequence. To protect all Michiganders from that dystopian future, Todd and Heather Maxon have teamed up with the Institute for Justice to appeal this dangerous ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court.

“Americans have a right to be secure in their homes and backyards without being watched by a government drone,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “The difference between a peeping tom and a lawful investigation is a judicially authorized warrant.”