The Michigan Supreme Court heard a case Wednesday that will determine if it was legal under the Fourth Amendment for a local town to hire a drone company to repeatedly spy on the home of one of its residents without a warrant.
In the case, a man named Todd Maxon was storing and fixing up junked cars on his five-acre property in Long Lake Township in Michigan. Maxon and the township signed an agreement in 2008 that Maxon would not face any zoning action if he did not increase the number of cars he had on his property. In 2010, 2016, 2017, and 2018, the township hired a company called Zero Gravity Aerial to do aerial drone surveys of Maxon’s property to ensure he was complying with the settlement. The town filed a complaint against Maxon stating that he and his wife “significantly increased the scope of the junk cars and other junk material being kept on their property,” as determined by “aerial photographs.”
“The photographs reveal the existence of a number of trailers and trucks with enclosed beds, which, upon information and belief, are being used as storage by the Defendants,” the city wrote in its enforcement action. “These temporary storage structures violate the zoning ordinance because they are impermissible accessory buildings.”
Court records reviewed by 404 Media show that the township hired Zero Gravity Aerial to specifically and repeatedly fly over Maxon’s property for the express purpose of proving he had violated the township’s ordinances. It’s particularly notable that the township did not get a warrant to do this and chose to contract with a commercial drone business to do surveillance, rather than work with local law enforcement or get permission from a judge.
“The approximately 10-acre area surrounding the property of Todd Maxon [address redacted] will be photographed and mapped to provide evidence for the purposes of code enforcement,” a proposal from Zero Gravity Aerial reviewed by 404 Media reads. “Primary emphasis will be placed upon identification and documentation of vehicles, scrap, and other detritus located on the property. Digital imagery and GPS coordinates of the proposed area and in the surrounding areas will be recorded.”
Zero Gravity Aerial delivered “aerial photographs of the proposed property, Ground photographs taken from accessible nearby properties, and a finished orthomap of the proposed property,” according to the proposal, which was submitted as evidence. The company also documented each and every “item” on the property that had moved or been added and created an “inventory” of everything on his property, and was paid $1,200 for doing so.
Dennis Wiand, the owner of Zero Gravity Aerial, wrote an affidavit in which he said that while he was flying his “mission” over the Maxon’s property, he “did see Mr. Maxon walk out to his vehicle and look up at the drone.” He also stated that Maxon walked over to where he was piloting the drone and began to ask him what he was doing and that he “was interfering with my work.”
“Todd appeared to be frustrated and began to walk away and told me to ‘Go fuck yourself,’” Wiand noted.