ACLU questions legality of Johnston County deputies’ use of drone

Johnston County News

BENSON, N.C. (WNCN) – Johnston County Sheriff’s deputies recently used a drone to gather evidence that led to a felony arrest – but at least one civil rights group is questioning if they broke the law in the process.

“If this isn’t taken seriously by state and local lawmakers, this could really go into dangerous territory,” said ACLU of NC spokesman Mike Meno.

Since 2011, law enforcement agencies across the state have found drones to be cheaper and more efficient alternatives to helicopters.

“There’s emergencies in which this might be the quickest way that law enforcement can get their eyes on a situation,” said Meno.

How drones are being deployed has drawn the attention of groups like the ACLU.

“This is one of a series of tools that have become available to local law enforcement over the last few years that make it easier to conduct surveillance of everyday citizens,” said Meno.

According to warrants, Johnston County Sheriff’s deputies deployed their drone to check out a tip that 37-year-old Nolan King Knittle had stolen property hidden in the woods behind his house.

It was only after they used the drone to confirm the tip that they obtained a search warrant and made a felony arrest.

“We believe a warrant should’ve been required in this case,” said Meno. “It’s very disturbing that we have law enforcement conducting spying missions to see if they can spot something illegal.”

North Carolina law states drone surveillance in areas within the officers plain view, or if that law enforcement agency first obtains a warrant.

“This is why we have the protections of the Constitution to prevent abuse,” said Meno. “It’s to prevent law enforcement officers from going rogue and using technology at their disposal to conduct searches of people who they might have a grudge against.”

Knittle remains in the Johnston County Jail on a $131,000 bond.

The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office and Johnston County District Attorney declined to comment on this story.

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