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Court: Drone photos OK to use in Long Lake Twp. zoning case

An appellate court recently ruled that photos obtained by a drone without a search warrant, could not be used as evidence in a case between Long Lake Township and two residents.

Images gathered by an aerial drone of private property can be used to enforce zoning regulations.

That’s according to a split decision this week from the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The case involves a couple in Long Lake Township, near Traverse City. Todd and Heather Maxon ran afoul township officials in 2007 for storing junk cars on their five-acre property.

They settled with the township and agreed not to add any more vehicles.

But neighbors complained that, in fact, the Maxons had expanded their junkyard in the time since the settlement. The property wasn’t visible from the road, so the township hired a company to fly a drone overhead and take a look.

The Maxons argued that the drone constituted an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment, and that the images should be suppressed.

The issue made its way to the state Supreme Court, before ending up back in front of a three-judge panel with the Court of Appeals.

In a 2-to-1 decision issued Thursday, they sided with Long Lake Township. The Court wrote that even assuming the search did violate the Fourth Amendment, the legal rule excluding evidence in such searches only applies to criminal matters.

The rule about excluding evidence is meant to deter police misconduct, but does not apply in civil cases, where police aren't involved.

Long Lake Township Supervisor Ron Lemcool said he was still reviewing the appeals court decision. An attorney for the Maxons could not immediately be reached.

Ed Ronco is IPR's news director.