A divided federal appeals court ruled Thursday that Baltimore’s controversial surveillance plane — the Aerial Investigative Research program (AIR) — is constitutional, calling it a tool to help police combat rampant crime without invading the rights and privacy of city residents, the Baltimore Sun reports. The panel pointed to the city’s homicide count — topping 300 each of the past five years — and the police department’s inability to solve cases as a reason to search for alternatives. In a 2-1 ruling, the judges found that police have taken steps to protect the rights of residents. The court said, “It is important at the outset to say all the things the program does not do. It does not search a person’s home, car, personal information or effects. It does not photograph a person’s features. The program has been progressively circumscribed to meet the thoughtful objections of civil libertarians, though not sufficiently in plaintiffs’ view.”
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Uniion for an activist group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. It sought to block the surveillance program, a six-month pilot designed to aid police in solving and preventing crime. The trial run ended last week. The program’s future will be determined after an evaluation of its effectiveness. Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold funded three planes and their pilots, as well as grants to study whether the program is having an impact on violent crime. The technology is capable of capturing images of 32 square miles. The plane is constitutional because it is less invasive than street surveillance cameras and the “built-in limitations of the AIR program mean that it only enables the short-term tracking of public movements,” said Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III. In dissent, Chief Judge Roger Gregory said the surveillance had larger, more disturbing implications.