After a lengthy legal battle, the ongoing case of a Michigan couple accusing local authorities of violating their privacy and constitutional rights by using a drone to inspect their cluttered yard is now set to be heard by the state's Supreme Court for final resolution.
Responding to the extensive arguments presented by both parties, the Supreme Court of Michigan granted Long Lake Township residents Heather and Todd Maxon's appeal, allowing their case against the municipality to proceed before the justices. The dispute originated in 2007 when authorities began employing a drone pilot to gather aerial evidence of the couple's yard, which was allegedly being used to stockpile cars in violation of zoning laws. The Maxons argued that these observations constituted an unlawful intrusion on their privacy.
Throughout the protracted legal process, the complaints have evolved to include claims that the drone operation also violated the Fourth Amendment's protections against illegal searches and seizures. While various judges have largely ruled in favor of Long Lake Township officials, an appeals court overturned this trend in 2021. However, a Michigan Supreme Court-ordered review reversed that decision against the Maxons last October.
Given the extensive duration of the legal battle and the exhausted options within lower judicial arenas, the Michigan Supreme Court has deemed it necessary to consider the Maxons' general appeal. Justices will deliberate on the alleged violation of constitutional rights stemming from the contested drone flight and evaluate the most recent appellate court's recognition of a legal statute that excluded certain arguments raised by the Maxons.
In its order, the court stated that it would provide a definitive ruling on "whether the appellee violated the appellants' Fourth Amendment rights by using an unmanned drone to take aerial photographs of the appellants' property for use in zoning and nuisance enforcement; and (2) whether the exclusionary rule applies to this dispute."
Even those who dislike courtroom dramas and the lawyers involved in them will find it important to monitor the outcome of the Maxons' appeal and its potential implications for privacy laws, not only in Michigan but also across the United States.
It is highly likely that Long Lake Township authorities hired a drone pilot to collect evidence substantiating complaints about the Maxon yard's unsightly stockpiling of cars and parts. Claims of a zoning law violation cited by the city in demanding the cleanup are also well-founded.
The Maxons themselves implicitly acknowledged both points when, faced with the threat of fines and legal action, they initially agreed to an out-of-court settlement limiting their collection to the existing volumes.
However, subsequent drone flights over the increasingly cluttered yard indicated a violation of the agreement, prompting punitive action from the town and leading the Maxons to file a lawsuit, citing a breach of privacy. This legal battle has now made its way to the Michigan Supreme Court.
The decision of the Michigan Supreme Court justices regarding the alleged abuse of privacy and Fourth Amendment rights through the use of a drone will undoubtedly have implications for individuals and lawyers across the United States who are concerned about the growing number of recreational, commercial, and governmental UAVs in the sky and the associated risks to privacy.