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Michigan Supreme Court rules against couple in dispute over privacy and drone photos of land

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that a local government did not violate landowners' right against unreasonable searches when they used a drone to photograph their salvage yard.

The Michigan Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of a local government Friday in a dispute over sending a drone to take pictures of a rural salvage yard without permission.

Liberal and conservative groups closely watched the case, even joining together to urge the court to throw out evidence collected by Long Lake Township.

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Todd and Heather Maxon had argued that the aerial photos violated their right to not have unreasonable searches. But the Supreme Court said the fight over excessive junk on the heavily wooded parcel was a civil action, not a criminal case, and that the so-called exclusionary rule doesn’t apply.

“We decline to address whether the use of an aerial drone under the circumstances presented here is an unreasonable search in violation of the United States or Michigan Constitutions,” the court said in a 7-0 opinion.

Without photos and video, the township “would have difficulty ensuring that the Maxons bring their property into conformity with its local zoning and nuisance ordinances,” the court said in a decision written by Justice Brian Zahra.

The township in northern Michigan sent a drone over the property in 2017 and 2018 after neighbors claimed the Maxons were storing too many cars and other items. The township said the property was being turned into a salvage yard, a violation of an earlier lawsuit settlement.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Cato Institute and the Rutherford Institute filed briefs on the side of the Maxons. The Michigan Townships Association and Michigan Municipal League backed the township.

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