Do Police Need a Warrant to Conduct a Drone Search?

Charlotte DWI Lawyer Brad Smith answers the question: “Can the police search my car without a warrant?”


As technology advances, so do law enforcement’s methods of obtaining evidence and solving crimes. Law enforcement officers today are able to conduct searches using drones, which can fly over land and collect video footage and photos. The police often use drones to find missing or stolen property. Recently, a lawsuit arose after police officers flew a drone over private property to find stolen construction equipment.


Drone-Camera-Charlotte-Monroe-Lake-Norman-Criminal-Defense-Lawyer-300x225According to a news report by WRAL, police in Johnston County used a drone to obtain video footage of stolen property after receiving a tip about stolen construction equipment. The police flew a drone over the private property of the man who was arrested and charged with the crime. There are questions about whether a search warrant was granted that contained permission for the police to use a drone. Did the police need a search warrant to fly over private property? Is the drone use permissible under North Carolina law?


North Carolina does have laws in place regarding police using drone footage in executing searches. According to the “restrictions on use of unmanned aircraft systems” statute, police are permitted to “conduct surveillance in an area that is within a law enforcement officer’s plain view when the officer is in a location the officer has a legal right to be.” If law enforcement has obtained a search warrant that permits the use of a drone, it is permissible to conduct their search. Additionally, if police believe that there is a threat of immediate danger, evidence will be destroyed, or a suspect will escape, the use of a drone without the search warrant is permissible.


In general, a warrantless search by drone is not permitted in North Carolina, except in certain circumstances. In the case of the stolen construction property, there are two main questions that need to be analyzed in determining if the police acted property in obtaining the drone footage. First, a question could be raised as to whether or not this should be considered surveillance under the statute because it was more of a one-time flyover and not a continuous observation. Second, a question could be raised as to whether or not the plain view exception is applicable in this situation. The answers to these questions lie within the location of the drone operator and what he or she was able to see within plain view during the time of the surveillance.


The criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC are here to help you if you have concerns over law enforcement’s use or non-use of a search warrant. Regardless of the crime you are charged with, it is important for law enforcement to act appropriately and according to the law in collecting any evidence being used against you. If you are concerned that the police have failed to use the proper search warrant procedures, or any other mechanism for collecting evidence, we are here to provide a defense. Contact us today for a consultation. If you find yourself facing criminal charges and need the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney in or around Charlotte, Lake Norman, or our new office in Monroe, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828 or find additional resources here.








The criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC make it their mission to zealously defend their clients on a wide range of criminal matters at both the state and federal levels. These matters may include any charge from traffic offenses; DWI/DUI; drug charges (from simple possession to possession with intent to distribute and trafficking); gun permit denials; weapons offenses; and property crimes (larceny, breaking and entering, robbery, fraud, embezzlement, white collar offenses); to sexually related offenses (indecent exposure; sexual assault, crimes against nature, removal from sex offender registry); and violent crimes (domestic violence; assault; manslaughter; homicide, murder). Other legal issues that Arnold & Smith, PLLC criminal clients may be facing include restraining orders, restraining order and probation violations, expungements; appeals; and immigration issues related to criminal charges. Our criminal defense attorneys are passionate about ensuring that individuals empower themselves by being informed about their constitutional rights, and stand at the ready to fight in the defense of those facing criminal charges.





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