Written by Ashton Snyder on
 March 9, 2024

Alaska Supreme Court Says Law Enforcement Must Have Warrant In Use Of Aircraft, Zoom Lenses

A recent court decision has marked a significant moment in the ongoing conversation about privacy rights and law enforcement surveillance tactics.

The Alaska Supreme Court has declared that officers must secure a warrant to use aircraft and enhanced visual equipment for spying on private lands, setting a new benchmark for privacy under the Alaska Constitution, according to The Hill.

In a detailed examination of the case, it becomes evident just how pivotal the events leading up to this decision were. John William McKelvey III found himself at the center of a legal battle that would eventually challenge the boundaries of privacy and surveillance in Alaska.

After law enforcement received a tip about potential illegal activities on his heavily wooded property near Fairbanks, they conducted aerial surveillance without a warrant. This action led to McKelvey's arrest and set the stage for a critical legal debate on privacy rights.

The Heart of the Matter: Privacy Versus Surveillance

The court's decision came on Friday, emphasizing the necessity for law enforcement to obtain a warrant before engaging in aerial surveillance with devices such as binoculars or cameras with zoom lenses. This ruling directly counters arguments suggesting that the common use of small airplanes in Alaska could justify warrantless surveillance of private properties.

McKelvey's legal journey began when Alaska State Troopers, acting on a tip, surveilled his property from the air. The troopers' use of a camera with a high-power zoom lens to capture images of McKelvey's greenhouse, which contained "unidentifiable plants," played a crucial role in the case.

This evidence, combined with the tip, led to a search warrant, the discovery of marijuana plants, methamphetamine, scales, a rifle, and cash, and ultimately, McKelvey's conviction on several charges.

Legal Battle Leads to Supreme Court Ruling

Despite a lower court initially ruling against McKelvey's attempt to have the evidence obtained through aerial surveillance suppressed, the Alaska Supreme Court's decision has now affirmed an appeals court's reversal of that decision. The Supreme Court's statement highlighted the Alaska Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches, noting that incidental public observation does not justify warrantless aerial scrutiny by law enforcement.

"The Alaska Constitution protects the right to be free of unreasonable searches," the court asserted, addressing the fundamental issue at hand. This stance challenges the notion that merely because a person might be seen from the air by passersby, it doesn't grant law enforcement the right to conduct warrantless surveillance.

A Victory for Privacy Advocates

Attorney Robert John, representing McKelvey, hailed the ruling as a monumental victory for privacy rights in Alaska, expressing hope that it would inspire similar protective measures across the country. This sentiment underscores the broader implications of the decision, which extends beyond McKelvey's case to affect the privacy rights of all Alaskans.

The Alaska Department of Law, currently reviewing the court's decision, has yet to announce its future actions or any potential changes to surveillance practices. Meanwhile, The Hill has reached out to the Alaska Department of Public Safety for comments, signaling ongoing interest and debate surrounding the ruling.

This landmark decision by the Alaska Supreme Court underscores a crucial balance between law enforcement capabilities and the privacy rights of individuals.

By requiring warrants for aerial surveillance, the court affirms the importance of privacy under the Alaska Constitution, setting a precedent that may influence future legal standards both within the state and potentially across the nation.

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About Ashton Snyder

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