Township drone photos used to support zoning code violation are admissible

by Gary Taylor

Long Lake Township v. Todd and Heather Maxon

Michigan Court of Appeals, September 15, 2022 (published opinion)

In 2007 Long Lake Township brought a zoning action against Todd Maxon arising from his storage of junked cars on his property. The case was settled in 2008 when Maxon agreed to maintain the status quo – no more junked cars on his property than existed at the time of the settlement.

In subsequent years the neighbors complained that the Maxons had expanded their junk yard, but this could not be confirmed from ground level because buildings and trees obstructed views of the property. The township hired Zero Gravity Ariel to take areal photos of the property with a drone in 2010, 2016, 2017, and 2018. The photos allegedly show that the number of junked cars had increased considerably since the settlement agreement, so the township filed an abatement action against the Maxons. Invoking the Fourth Amendment, the Maxons filed a motion to suppress the drone photos. The trial court denied the motion holding that the drone surveillance was not a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. After more trips up and down the appellate ladder than are necessary to review here, the Michigan Supreme Court remanded the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals to consider the legal question of “whether the exclusionary rule applies to this dispute” considering no past precedent has extended the application of the exclusionary rule beyond criminal proceedings.

The Court of Appeals began by noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the application of the exclusionary rule in civil cases, explaining that the purpose of the exclusionary rule is twofold: to deter police misconduct, and to provide a remedy where no other remedy is available. The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded after a thorough review of U.S. Supreme Court caselaw that the only application of the exclusionary rule to civil cases under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is in civil forfeiture actions “when the thing being forfeited as a result of criminal prosecution is worth more than the criminal fine that might be assessed.”

Turning to Michigan law the Court of Appeals notes that Article 1, Section 11 of the Michigan Constitution specifically constrains the application of the exclusionary rule, and Michigan courts have held that this provision provides “less search and seizure protections than required under the Fourth Amendment.” After a review of Michigan cases the Court of Appeals observed

Assuming that the drone search was illegal, it was performed by a private party. True, that
person acted at the behest of a township official. But the exclusionary rule is intended to deter
police misconduct, not that of lower-level bureaucrats who have little or no training in the Fourth
Amendment. There is no likelihood that exclusion of the drone evidence in this zoning infraction
matter will discourage the police from engaging in future misconduct, since the police were never
involved in the first place. Rather, exclusion of the drone evidence likely will deter a township-8-
employee who works in the zoning arena from ever again resorting to a drone to gather evidence
of a zoning violation. This is not the purpose of the exclusionary rule.

Long Lake Township v. Maxon, slip opinion p. 7.

The Court of Appeals concluded that “the exclusionary rule was not intended to operate in this arena” because the objective of the township was not to penalize the Maxons, but rather to abate a nuisance through the operation of equitable remedies.

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