MI Appeals Court Holds Township Can Use Drone Captured Evidence to Enforce Zoning Without Violating 4th Amendment Since Enforcement was Civil and not Criminal

This post was authored by Anna Kim, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Touro Law Center

The Long Lake Township brought a zoning action against homeowners Todd and Heather Maxon for storing junk on their five-acre property in 2007. The homeowners were required by a settlement agreement in 2008 to maintain their property and refrain from storing additional junk cars.

However, the homeowners apparently continued to expand their junkyard, which drew complaints from nearby neighbors. The township hired Zero Gravity Aerial because they could not validate the claims due to obstructed views on the homeowner’s property. The company took aerial photographs that showed the Maxons enlarging the junkyard on their property in 2010, 2016, 2017, and 2018. As a result, the township commenced a civil action against the homeowners for a declaratory judgment and abatement of the junkyard nuisance.

The Maxons appealed and moved to suppress the aerial photos obtained using a drone without their consent or legal authorization. The Supreme Court reversed the motion to suppress after determining that using a drone violated the Fourth Amendment. The court also reversed and remanded this case to determine whether the exclusionary rule applied to this zoning action.

The court affirmed that the exclusionary rule does not apply to civil zoning actions. This case was distinguishable from the precedents because it is not criminal within the statutes’ meanings, and there are no police officers involved. Additionally, the legislative intent was to prevent police misconduct rather than deter evidence in a civil action. The court also held that excluding the evidence would be substantial, and the benefit of suppressing the evidence outweighed the community’s interest in enforcing the zoning regulations.

Long Lake Twp. v. Maxon, 2022 WL 4281509 (Mich. Ct. App. Sept. 15, 2022)

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