The use of drones for all types of purposes has become widespread in the modern age. This has included, on occasion, their use in criminal activity. This is illustrated by an unreported opinion from Maryland’s intermediate appellate court this month in a case called Thaddeus Shortz v. State.
The Court’s opinion indicates that at Detective with the State Police was told by the Department of Corrections that an inmate named Brooks was receiving contraband from a suspect outside a prison in Allegany County by use of a drone device. The contraband was said to include drugs, CDs, cell phones and other contraband. The Detective obtained a picture of the suspect and description of his pickup truck.
Surveillance was set up outside the prison, and the Detective saw a truck pull up and recognized the Defendant and his vehicle. Police observed the Defendant and another suspect in the vehicle looking at them through binoculars, and Shortz then exited the truck and approached one of the officers, who exited his vehicle and got Shortz prone on the ground for safety. While chasing the other suspect, the Detective glanced into the truck and saw a drone in the back seat. The police then searched the truck, found the drone, drugs and other contraband, and a gun and bullets. After being arrested and read his rights, Shortz admitted he was one of the “top people on the outside” who had been delivering items to the prison by drone.
After a motion to suppress evidence was denied, these facts were testified to at trial by the police, and a jury convicted Shortz of multiple counts of possession of controlled dangerous substances, conspiracy to distribute drugs and firearms violations. Among the issues raised on appeal was whether the search of the truck, and seizure of the evidence violated the 4th amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The appellate court held that the automobile exception to the requirement of a warrant for a search was clearly applicable, particularly where the drone was in plain view from outside the truck. Since an automobile is mobile, a warrantless search is permitted if the police have probable cause to believe it contains evidence of crime which could be removed before a warrant was obtained. Other than correcting how the Defendant’s sentence was calculated, the Court affirmed the convictions.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.