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Federal judge limits access to remaining footage from Baltimore ‘spy plane’

Baltimore police cannot access a limited cache of surveillance footage gathered by the city’s now-defunct aerial surveillance program except to provide evidence to prosecutors and defense lawyers in already existing cases, a federal judge ordered Monday.

The order aligns with a June 24 ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which blocked the “spy plane” program and found that it represented an unacceptable intrusion into city residents’ privacy.

Details of the surveillance program first became public in 2016, generating intense criticism over the program’s secrecy and civil rights implications. The program was discontinued but began again in 2020 as part of a short-term pilot program.

The ACLU of Maryland sued to halt the program in April 2020. U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett denied the organization’s request for an injunction blocking the surveillance program, but the 4th circuit reversed his decision in June.

The pilot program ended in October 2020, and city officials declined to continue it. The police department deleted most of the images collected by the planes, but retained about 14% of the images because they were related to 200 cases in which aerial surveillance information was used. The remaining data included more than 264 hours of plane coverage and 950,000 cropped images, according to the 4th Circuit’s ruling.

The federal appeals court found that accessing the footage is considered a search that requires a warrant because police had almost unlimited access to city residents’ movements through the plane program.

Police cannot review the remaining footage under Monday’s ruling, which the ACLU of Maryland proposed in response to the 4th Circuit decision.

The only exceptions include turning over footage to prosecutors and defense lawyers for use in criminal cases that already existed before the 4th Circuit ruled on June 24. The order does not require the images to be destroyed.