The newest crime-fighting tool in Camden lifts an observation post some 35 feet into the air, letting police scan a wide area with cameras, thermal-imaging equipment and other forms of surveillance technology.
But the legal outlook from Sky Patrol may be more cloudy, according to criminal lawyers and civil libertarians. They tell the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill that such sweeping surveillance may conflict with a citizen's expectation of privacy in a home, potentially setting the stage for court battles over future prosecutions.
"When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, it (Sky Patrol) is a very gray area," said Haddon Heights attorney Kenneth D. Aita, referring to the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. "Every ruling from the court will be based on specific facts of each case. There is no precedent."
Jeffrey Zucker, a criminal attorney from Camden, noted the bird's-eye view from Sky Patrol could test current limits on police searches.
"When there's that expectation that you are alone, and someone's looking in a window or a fenced-in backyard, that's a real problem," he stated. "If you're on the street or your porch, it's a different matter."
But law enforcement representatives maintain Camden police have the right to fight crime from the air or ground.
"We really don't see an issue," said Mike Daniels, a spokesman for the Camden County Police, which acquired Sky Patrol with $135,000 in forfeited funds.
"We have a lot of (street) cameras up already, and this will function the same way, in public view."
Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said "issues of privacy and law enforcement are highly sensitive and situation-specific." But, he continued, "There is precedent established in court that allows law enforcement to use observations from an elevated vantage point in investigating crime."
"Could other homes be seen on (Sky Patrol) cameras?" asked Laughlin. "Probably, but you can close your shades."
Laughlin said the county police department, which patrols Camden, has received no special training or other instruction regarding Sky Patrol and privacy laws. But the sky-high surveillance allows police to operate more effectively, said Melissa Woods of FLIR Security Systems, maker of the hydraulic device.
With the unit, a single officer can oversee an area that otherwise would require five officers on the street, she added. That would allow other officers to be shifted elsewhere as needed.
The Sky Patrol can be towed to different locations and allows a single officer to view up to three-quarters of a mile, according to Howard Schemer, FLIR's manager of business development. Cameras on the post can zoom in for a closer look.
Schemer said orders have been coming in from various police departments and other buyers in New Jersey.
Yet Zucker, the Camden attorney, noted similar privacy concerns have been raised over the potential use of aerial drones for law enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed public records requests in New Jersey and 22 other states to determine "the extent to which local police departments are using federally subsidized military technology and tactics that are traditionally used overseas."
Requests were directed to the New Jersey State Police, the city of Camden and prosecutor's offices in Burlington and Gloucester counties, according to the ACLU.
In announcing its campaign, the ACLU did not mention observation posts by name. But it expressed concern over the increased use of "military weapons and vehicles, military tactical training and actual military assistance to conduct traditional law enforcement."
That trend "erodes civil liberties and encourages increasingly aggressive policing, particularly in poor neighborhoods and communities of color," said Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the ACLU's Center for Justice.
"We've seen examples of this in several localities, but we don't know the dimensions of the problem."