US drones have hovered over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. They've also been used to collect intel over Mexico. We've heard that the military is using them on the US-Mexico border. Now, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that UAVs have been used in North Dakota. No, the drones aren't patrolling our perilous border with Canada; rather, law enforcement sometimes calls in Predator B's to perform run-of-the-mill surveillance. In the North Dakota case, a drone was used to nab cattle thieves.
The L.A. Times report says the FBI and local law enforcement have authorized dozens of domestic drone missions around the country. Some legal and law enforcement officials argue that using drones domestically is a mistake, and warrants vigorous public and legal debate. Do law enforcement officials need a warrant to perform drone surveillance? In the past US courts have allowed law enforcement to operate aerial surveillance without a search warrant. Besides the fact that drones are able to stay airborne for longer periods of time, I'm not sure operating a drone is any different than flying a helicopter. At present, law enforcement is using this precedent to justify drone operations.
Other police officers claim the drones are just a necessary upgrade over surveillance helicopters (I'm sure this will assuage the fears of Black Helicopter conspiracy theorists). In the North Dakota case, the drone's sophisticated instrumentation was able to spot the suspects and verify that they were unarmed, allowing a SWAT team to make an arrest. Officers argue the drone's advanced sensors allow law enforcement officials to gather more complete information.
In general, I am wary of warrantless aerial surveillance, whether performed by drones or helicopters; I readily admit that I am not familiar with the court decisions which allow such actions, and cannot provide a detailed legal argument to defend my suspicions. However, I don't think that the American public will easily accept domestic law enforcement use of drones. First, Americans associate drones with the Middle East and the hunt for terrorists. Using unarmed UAVs over the US interior will likely make many people uncomfortable; bad PR and political pressure may discourage local law enforcement from using drones in the future. Second, because drones carry much more sophisticated surveillance equipment than police helicopters, courts may decide that drones are categorically different than other forms of surveillance. If police departments must receive a warrant before using a drone, officers may be more reluctant to call upon UAVs.