Drones Redux

Don't mind this camera, really.

In February our fair City of Seattle – most recently in the news for our passage of bills legalizing gay marriage and marijuana use – took a stand against a disturbing trend: law enforcement putting aerial drones over our heads. The Seattle Police Department spent $80,000 in 2010 to acquire two small drones equipped with cameras which were supposed to be used only in certain criminal investigations and to search for missing persons, although I don’t think it’s hard to imagine the potential for abuse in those scenarios. Thankfully, Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle PD jointly decided to ground the project. The SPD claims that it decided to end the project to “focus its resources on public safety and the community-building work that is the department’s priority,” but I think it’s more likely that the project was grounded due to the heated criticism by residents and the ACLU, and a public outcry over privacy issues.

As a citizen (and as an attorney who deals with the police on a regular basis) I am proud that the public was able to see this for what it is. While it’s true that the drones would not have carried weapons and can only stay in the air for 15 minutes before their batteries run out – a point made by the SPD that was supposed to make them seem less of a threat but almost makes them seem useless – the real issue is not about our safety, but about our right to privacy and our trust that our government will respect that right. The use of these drones, the way that I believe the SPD would ultimately use them, would almost certainly amount to warrantless searches and the slope would only continue to get more slippery. But, crisis averted, right? Or so it seemed …

A month after the drone program was grounded, the Seattle City Council approved new legislation governing how and when the city can use and operate this type of surveillance equipment. Hmm. Trying to sell us on the drones again? The new legislation would provide that any city department that wants to use surveillance equipment, including drones and cameras, would simply have to get prior approval. Departments would have to spell out how they plan to use the devices, and the City Council would hold a public hearing on the proposal before giving the Ok. So far so good. And then, oops, a last minute amendment! The amended bill would allow police to use drones without approval under three sets of conditions: 1) when they have a warrant to do so; 2) no warrant, but under certain “exigent” circumstances; and 3) in the course of a criminal investigation when the courts would not require a warrant for specified kinds of surveillance in public spaces. Not so surprisingly, our Seattle Police Chief, John Diaz, asked the council for these exemptions. He noted that the requirement to secure a warrant could create an “impediment” to investigations because the courts are not inclined to issue warrants when they are not needed. In other words, “we want the ability to do warrantless searches because the courts might not issue a warrant”.

This is NUTS. There is only one reason a court won’t issue a warrant when asked: the warrant is not authorized by law and would result in unconstitutional behavior by police. Is anyone surprised that police want to make this decision on their own without having to consider pesky Constitutional issues? Does anyone trust them to make these legal decisions on their own? Citizens have not in the past, and should not now.

Ohio Lab Director resigns

Scientist or cop? You decide.

If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to be the Director of a Crime Lab, where decisions are made regarding the science, preservation, analysis, and storage of life-changing forensic evidence, consider the case of Rick Perez (no relation, honest), 57, who worked in law enforcement for 37 years and served as Chief Deputy Sheriff of Stark County, Ohio. The job posting called for academic degrees in chemistry, forensic science or business management. Perez sailed through and got the job without any college degree. Science, schmience!

After this was brought to light, the mayor — who initially supported Perez for the position — “removed” Perez from the job and commented that it wasn’t about Perez, but about “the process”. In other words, it’s ok for cops to put on lab coats and manage scientific evidence, so long as nobody notices.

Read more about this here.

– RP


Stingray’s stealthy pervasiveness

If you think the iPhone’s ability to store your location is obtrusive and scary, wait till you hear what the *government* is doing with cell phone tracking technology. The latest threat is called “Stingray” and it’s nothing less than a network of fake cell phone towers sprinkled around the country quietly (and illegally) capturing all the cell phone calls being made in the area surrounding the fake tower. The FBI has been using these for some time now, but they’ve started distributing them to local law enforcement, ostensibly to monitor “terrorism” but, as this article points out, they’re really being used (intentionally) to keep track of you and I.

Admit it. We are living in a police state.

– RP

Hello, World!


Robert Perez, Esq.

Defensology was created in July of 2006 as a forum for the discussion of issues related to the intersection of technology and criminal defense.  My name is Robert Perez. I’m a trial lawyer and I practice criminal law in the greater Seattle region along with my daughter, Sarah J. Perez. You can read about our practice on our website. As a software engineer and trial lawyer, I have a great interest in this topic and have always enjoyed writing about it. The blog was a great outlet for highlighting trends of interest and the competing fears and “ooooos and ahhhhs” over the emerging capabilities of science (and junk science) as applied to law.

Due to the heavy demands of a growing practice, the site had to be retired after a brief, but flambouyant lifetime. I’m pleased to be back writing again (no, the business hasn’t slowed, but I have better help now). Thanks to all of you who have supported the effort and bugged me to get back at it. It’s going to be fun and there is even more to talk about than ever.

If you wish to contact me directly, please leave a message at www.RobertPerezLaw.com on the Contacts page.


– RP