MEDINA, Ohio — The Medina County Sheriff’s Office is on a recently released FAA list of agencies now authorized to fly unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
Tom Miller, who only recently became the county’s new sheriff, said the groundwork for use of the technology predated him by as many as eight years, and has a specific intended purpose of looking for missing people or suspects who might be taking refuge in woods.
“About two or three times a year in Medina County, we have maybe kids or seniors with Alzheimer’s who have walked away, and they live in rural areas so quite often there are woods,” said Miller, adding “the sooner we can look for them the better off we are.”
The sheriff’s office has been working with a local manufacturer that developed the ‘TAV-200’, short for ‘Tactical Arial Vehicle.’
Although it is a drone, the 2.2-pound vehicle easily fits inside a patrol car and more closely resembles a remote control helicopter.
Miller said it is equipped only with a thermal imaging camera designed to help search for missing people, not spy on ordinary citizens.
“We’re not spying. I don’t want somebody with a helicopter or anything else up above my house while I’m out having a barbecue on a Sunday afternoon,” said Miller. “But if my grandson is missing, and we can’t find him, every help that’s available, I would like to think that law enforcement can do to find him that’s really what this is meant to do.”
For some in Medina County and elsewhere, simply the word “drone” triggers fourth amendment concerns about privacy matters and fourth amendment rights against illegal search and seizure.
“Most people like me myself, I don’t know if I want someone spying over top of me without my knowledge,” said Rich Browand.
“Sometimes I think the government’s got enough eyes watching us. I’m not sure we need more,” said Al Zgrabik.
University of Akron Law Professor J. Dean Carro said many people think they have more privacy in areas where they really don’t.
“Anything that the government can see in a public place that is exposed to public view is not protected,” said Carro.
That includes what can be seen from above.
“People are flying over your property all the time, albeit from a high altitude, they are still flying over your property,” said Carro. “So society is prepared to say ‘well you have an expectation for privacy from the ground level but no expectation of privacy from over flights.’ The drone is simply an unmanned vehicle, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the property, creating down-wash or things like that, the courts will probably say it’s permissible.”
“The yard is exposed to public view. The yard is not protected.” said Carro. “The home is a different story. If they start using infrared cameras to look inside the home that brings to mind another case.”
Sgt. Jim Sanford is one of two deputies who have been to FAA flight ground school to learn how to fly the drone.
He said he is well aware of what he can and cannot do with the camera that is on the vehicle. That includes using it to look at what people might be doing inside of their houses.
“We’d have to get a search warrant to do that signed by a judge, and also we would need approval from the sheriff. We can’t just go out and launch this whenever we feel like it or whenever we want,” said Sanford.
“We don’t want to abuse the public in terms of search and seizure. We aren’t using that for that purpose. If there is a reason we would want to or had to we would go to a judge and ask for a search warrant,” said Miller.
Still, some people in Media County worry that the current use of the technology might open up doors that could lead to more invasive use in the future as more and more high-tech instruments and cameras are developed.
Miller said he welcomes their concerns.
“I think we need that balance in our society,” he said. “People that are concerned about that versus those who say do whatever you want we need that balance in our group to keep a check and balance on how we do our job. So anything I can do to assure them that we are not there to violate that fourth amendment, to violate their rights, but merely to save lives is what we are trying to do.”