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Crime

Baltimore Police to expunge all records relating to defunct spy plane program as part of lawsuit settlement

Baltimore Police and the company involved in a controversial, now-defunct surveillance plane program will expunge all of the records and data collected as part of a lawsuit settlement.

The police department and Persistent Surveillance Systems, the company that ran the planes out of Martin State Airport during a six-month testing period, will dispose of all records with the exception of those that are part of ongoing prosecutions, as part of an agreement filed this week in a federal lawsuit brought against the police department in 2020.

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Program data “shall be expunged from BPD records once every criminal prosecution which relies upon information or evidence obtained or derived from the AIR [Aerial Investigation Research] program is final, and the direct appeal of all such prosecutions has been exhausted or rendered untimely,” the agreement said.

It’s not clear how many cases will use data from the program, or when police will begin expunging the data. Baltimore Police and the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office did not provide the number of cases potentially affected Wednesday.

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The surveillance program had been sold initially as a tool to help police investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. But it quickly became criticized as excessive government overreach.

The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the police department in April 2020 over the program, citing privacy concerns, and sought an injunction to ground the planes. Last June, the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

“Allowing the police to wield this power unchecked is anathema to the values enshrined in our Fourth Amendment,” Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote in the opinion.

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The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots city think tank; Erricka Bridgeford, co-founder of the Baltimore Ceasefire 365 project; and Kevin James, a community organizer and hip-hop musician.

Dayvon Love, the director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said Wednesday that the organization is “satisfied” with the settlement.

Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle decided to be plaintiffs in the lawsuit because “it was important for us to push back against the government attempts to undermine social movements,” he said.

An outside review was completed last year of the program that flew three Cessna planes over Baltimore during a six-month trial in 2020. The report found that 1,532 crimes occurred during that period, but only 158 crimes had evidence collected from the planes.

The planes were limited when they could fly, only flying during the day and during certain weather conditions. Of the 158 crimes that captured footage, only 38 were cleared by arrest or exception, the report said.

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The trial program had been funded by a pair of Texas philanthropists. The city’s Board of Estimates voted to cancel the contract for the program in February 2021.

As part of the lawsuit settlement, the city has agreed to pay $99,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees for the suit, which was approved by the Board of Estimates last month.


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