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Federal Appeals Court Hears Arguments In Suit Aiming To Permanently Ground Baltimore's Aerial Surveillance Program

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Baltimore's controversial spy plane is over and some now want it grounded for good.

The aerial surveillance pilot program aimed at reducing crime in the city ended last year and the mayor and Board of Estimates officially nixed it last month, but a police department attorney was in federal court Monday defending the remaining data the agency still holds.

Attorneys said in the program's six months in the skies above Baltimore, the aerial investigation research program helped in more than 40 major criminal prosecutions and another six outstanding warrants. Critics, though, called the program "the most far-reaching surveillance system ever deployed on American soil."

"It is the technological equivalent of having a police officer follow you every time you walk out the door of your house," David Rocah from the ACLU of Maryland said last September.

ACLU attorneys asked the court to stop what some judges pointed out is a defunct program, but Judge James Wynn questioned the police department's attorney on Monday about the program's future.

"I suppose you could start it up at any time you wanted to. Does that matter?" the judge asked.

"Not under this mayor," former city solicitor Andre Davis replied.

"I understand that. Does the Constitution matter who's the mayor?" Wynn rebutted.

The ACLU, arguing for city residents bringing the lawsuit, said the program violates peoples' Fourth Amendment rights. They want the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to prevent the police department from accessing the data it has.

The department has held on to about 14% of the data from the private company that ran the program.

Davis acknowledged the debate surrounding the program but said just being controversial doesn't make it unconstitutional.

Judges grilled the ACLU's attorney on whether they should rule on the legality of the program, instead deferring to the lower district court.

Judge Harvie Wilkinson called it a "fairly mild program," citing the city's struggle with crime.

"We are leaving, I fear, good communities like Baltimore... cities without hope," he said. "We come awfully close to saying aerial surveillance is out of bounds... can't use it no matter how pressing the problem is."

Attorneys presented their cases for more than two hours on Monday. It may take the court on the order of weeks to make a ruling.

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