As Michigan’s Supreme Court prepares to deliberate on the bounds of warrantless drone surveillance, citizens statewide are watching closely. At the heart of the case are Todd and Heather Maxon, a couple from Long Lake Township who’ve found themselves in the crosshairs of relentless zoning enforcement efforts.
The Maxons’ case challenges government practices that tread a difficult line between public safety and individual liberties. According to the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm representing the couple, government officials have been wielding drone technology for unwarranted surveillance, potentially infringing Fourth Amendment rights.
IJ attorney Mike Greenberg has been clear: “The government cannot intrude on your home with a drone to surveil you – without a warrant – then use the information it gathered against you in court.” This pivotal issue harkens back to the heart of our Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, protecting Americans from unlawful searches and seizures.
For years, Long Lake Township officials flew a sophisticated drone over the Maxon’s property—taking detailed photos and videos as part of a zoning dispute.
— Institute for Justice (@IJ) May 24, 2023
Long Lake Township zoning officials have reportedly used a drone to document supposed zoning violations on the Maxon’s property for two years, fueling a protracted zoning dispute. Such practice could have far-reaching implications, making it a topic of national concern. Should governments be allowed to spy on private properties without warrants using drones?
The saga began in 2007 when the local government accused the Maxons of illegally storing “junk” on their property. The couple successfully defended their rights, securing a favorable settlement that resulted in dropping the lawsuit against them and the government reimbursing their $3,000 in attorney’s fees. Yet, less than a decade later, the township returned with a drone to surveil the Maxon’s property.
Fast forward to 2022. The Michigan Court of Appeals handed down a controversial decision, ruling that even if drone surveillance did violate the Maxons’ Fourth Amendment rights, the evidence gathered could still be used in court. The court stated that protections of the Fourth Amendment do not apply to zoning code investigators. Such a stance risks opening a Pandora’s Box of warrantless searches under the pretext of civil code enforcement.
In the face of such intrusion, Todd Maxon remains defiant, declaring, “Like every American, I have a right to be secure on my property without being watched by a government drone.” As the Maxons prepare to stand before the Michigan Supreme Court, they’re not just fighting for their rights but potentially for all Michiganders.
The lawsuit, now to be decided by the Michigan Supreme Court, seeks a declaration that the government violated Maxon’s Fourth Amendment rights and cannot use the illegally obtained photos and videos in court.
It could set a dangerous precedent if the court upholds the lower court’s ruling. Governments could gain sweeping powers to spy without consequence, creating a slippery slope threatening fundamental freedoms. The IJ warns this could grant “unfettered discretion to spy” to government officials.
In a nation founded on individual liberties, we must question if such actions align with the principles we hold dear. As technology continues to evolve, our laws must strive to uphold constitutional protections, not erode them. The Maxons’ case is a reminder of the critical balance between security and liberty. This issue is certainly not confined to Michigan alone.
Here is a report on a similar surveillance lawsuit being prosecuted by the Institute for Justice in Tennessee: