Alaska Supreme Court rules law enforcement must have warrant to use aircraft, zoom lenses

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday that law enforcement must have a warrant prior to using aircraft and binoculars or cameras with zoom lenses to surveil areas around homes.

The decision by Alaska’s high court explains that some argue that “because small airplane travel is so common in Alaska, and because any passenger might peer into your yard and snap a picture of you, law enforcement officials may do the same,” according to The Associated Press.

“We disagree,” the decision continued.

The Friday ruling has its roots in a case dating to 2012, when Alaska State Troopers got a tip from an informant that John William McKelvey III was growing marijuana on his property north of Fairbanks, according to the AP.

McKelvey’s property was heavily wooded and had a driveway that led to a clearing that had a house and a greenhouse, according to the ruling. Ground-level visibility of the buildings was restricted by trees, and a gate prevented cars from coming in.

Two troopers who followed up on the tip flew past McKelvey’s property and used a camera with a high-power zoom lens to get photos of the greenhouse with buckets that had “unidentifiable plants” in them, according to the court, per the AP. A search warrant for McKelvey’s property was obtained, resulting from the tip and flight. Amid the search, items including marijuana plants, methamphetamine, scales, a rifle and cash were found.

A lower court denied McKelvey’s attempt to have the evidence suppressed, and he was convicted of third-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance and a weapons misconduct count, according to the AP. He appealed and said the judge had incorrectly denied his motion to suppress.

An appeals court later reversed the original court’s decision, which was followed by the Last Frontier’s highest court affirming the appeals court decision.

“The Alaska Constitution protects the right to be free of unreasonable searches,” the Alaska Supreme Court ruling states, according to the AP. “The fact that a random person might catch a glimpse of your yard while flying from one place to another does not make it reasonable for law enforcement officials to take to the skies and train high-powered optics on the private space right outside your home without a warrant.”

An attorney for McKelvey, Robert John, said the ruling is a “tremendous decision to protect the rights of privacy of Alaskans and hopefully set an example for the rest of the country,” according to the AP.

An attorney Robert John, who represents McKelvey, told The Hill in a statement that the ruling is a “tremendous victory for the privacy rights of all Alaskans.”

The Alaska Department of Law also told The Hill it is reviewing the ruling.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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