Leaders of A Beautiful Struggle v. Balt. Police Dep't

Decision Date05 November 2020
Docket NumberNo. 20-1495,20-1495
Citation979 F.3d 219
Parties LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE; Erricka Bridgeford; Kevin James, Plaintiffs – Appellants, v. BALTIMORE POLICE DEPARTMENT; Michael S. Harrison, in his official capacity as Baltimore Police Commissioner, Defendants - Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Brett Max Kaufman, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION, New York, New York, for Appellants. Rachel Simmonsen, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: David R. Rocah, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland; Ashley Gorski, Alexia Ramirez, Nathan Freed Wessler, Ben Wizner, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION, New York, New York, for Appellants.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and WILKINSON and NIEMEYER, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion, in which Judge Niemeyer joined. Chief Judge Gregory wrote a dissenting opinion.

WILKINSON, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs appeal the district court's denial of their request for a preliminary injunction against Baltimore's aerial surveillance program. For the reasons set forth herein, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the preliminary injunction.


Baltimore sadly has experienced a serious recent rise in homicides. For each of the past five years, Baltimore has been victimized by at least three hundred murders. In 2017, Baltimore experienced a higher absolute number of murders than New York City, a city with fourteen times Baltimore's population. See Alec MacGillis, The Tragedy of Baltimore , N.Y. Times Magazine, Mar. 17, 2019, at 32. Moreover, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has struggled to respond effectively to this increase in murders. In 2019, it cleared just 32.1% of homicide investigations, its lowest rate in several decades. Jessica Anderson, Baltimore Ending the Year with 32% Homicide Clearance Rate, One of the Lowest in Three Decades , Balt. Sun, Dec. 30, 2019.

As Judge Bennett noted during the preliminary injunction hearing, "even a pandemic cannot slow the pace of killings" in Baltimore. Transcript of Preliminary Hearing at 74, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Balt. Police Dep't , 456 F.Supp.3d 699 (D. Md. 2020). As of April 21, the date of the district court's hearing, Baltimore was on pace for a higher number of murders this year than in 2019. Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Balt. Police Dep't , 456 F.Supp.3d 699, 718 (D. Md. 2020).

One step taken by the BPD to strengthen its hand against violent crime is the Aerial Investigative Research program (AIR). It is a carefully limited program of aerial observations of public movements presented as dots, and it is important at the outset to say all the things the program does not do. It does not search a person's home, car, personal information or effects. It does not photograph a person's features. The program has been progressively circumscribed to meet the thoughtful objections of civil libertarians, though not sufficiently in plaintiffs’ view.

To implement and test this program, the BPD has partnered with a private company, Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS). The program operates by flying three small planes over Baltimore during daytime hours, weather permitting. The planes are equipped with cameras that cover about ninety percent of the city at any given time. The cameras employ a resolution that reduces each individual on the ground to a pixelated dot, thus making the cameras unable to capture identifying characteristics of people or automobiles.

The resulting photographs are transmitted to a control room, staffed by fifteen to twenty-five analysts employed by PSS along with BPD officers. The control room can access the photographs only when specific violent crimes—shootings, robberies, and carjackings—are reported in a particular location. Upon receiving a notification, analysts can "tag" the dots photographed around the crime scene and track those dots’ public movements in the hours leading up to and following the crime. The process takes about eighteen hours and provides the BPD with a report that includes the location and timing of the crime, the observable actions at the crime scene, the tracks of people and vehicles to and from the crime scene, and the locations the individuals at the crime scene visited before and after the crime. Using that data, the police can employ existing surveillance tools, such as on-the-ground surveillance cameras and license-plate readers, to identify witnesses and suspects. Within seventy-two hours, analysts can give the police a more detailed report about those present at the crime scene that potentially includes identifying information.

The partnership between PSS and the BPD began in 2016, when AIR was used to obtain about three hundred hours of surveillance. The BPD did not disclose the privately funded program's existence to the public, Baltimore's elected officials, or even the city solicitor. Then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis later stated that he wanted to see if the program worked before bringing it to the City Council. After a news article exposed the program's existence, it was temporarily shut down.

Under a new police commissioner, defendant Michael Harrison, the BPD moved to reactivate AIR and introduced safeguards intended to guard against potential abuses. In the name of transparency, the BPD has made public its contract with PSS and hosted public fora via social media networks like Facebook to explain and answer questions about AIR. Further, the BPD rallied substantial political support for the project, including from Governor Larry Hogan, dozens of crime victims, community groups, business advocacy groups, and the United Baptist Ministry Convention. The BPD has also adopted several limitations on the collection, use, and retention of photographs obtained through AIR surveillance in its contract with PSS. See J.A. 69–73. Those limitations are as follows:

• AIR's planes fly only the daytime hours, weather permitting, and never at night.
• AIR uses limited resolution cameras that identify individuals only as pixelated dots in a photograph. Analysts examining these photographs are not able to identify an individual's race, gender, or clothing.
• If a dot is seen entering a building in a photograph, analysts cannot know if the same person is leaving the building when they see a dot leave the building without the use of other surveillance tools.
• The cameras do not utilize zoom, infrared, or telephoto technologies.
• Analysts cannot access photographs until they receive a notification related to the investigation of a specific murder, non-fatal shooting, armed robbery, or carjacking.
• There will be no live tracking of individuals. Analysts can only use AIR's photographs to look at past movements.
• If an arrest is made using the AIR technology, the photos related to the arrest will be given to the prosecutor and defense counsel. Otherwise, all photographs collected by AIR will be deleted after forty-five days.

After the district court denied the plaintiffsrequest for a preliminary injunction, AIR became operational. It is currently near the completion of a six-month testing period, at the end of which its continued use will be assessed. As part of this assessment, the BPD has invited several independent research partners to study the program. The RAND Corporation will study how effective the program is at solving crimes. The Policing Project at the New York University School of Law will assess possible civil rights and civil liberties concerns. The University of Baltimore will study how residents of Baltimore perceive the program and whether, if at all, the program affects views of police legitimacy.


On April 9, 2020, plaintiffs sued the BPD and Commissioner Harrison under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the constitutionality of the AIR program under the First and Fourth Amendments. They alleged that the program would infringe their reasonable expectations of privacy because the police were likely to generate activity reports about them, that it would hinder their work in the community by making people afraid to talk to them on the streets for fear of being surveilled, and that it would chill their First Amendment rights by making them more hesitant to associate with people for fear of being observed. They sought a preliminary injunction.

After a hearing, the district court judge denied plaintiffsrequest for a preliminary injunction. After finding that plaintiffs had standing, the court concluded that a preliminary injunction was inappropriate because plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on the merits of their complaint. Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle , 456 F.Supp.3d 699, 710–16 (D.Md. 2020). The court discussed the various technical limitations of the AIR program, including that the planes can only fly twelve hours and only during the day (weather permitting) and that individuals would only be represented as pixelated dots to the persons looking at the captured images. Id. at 705–06. The upshot of these limitations, Judge Bennett explained, was that individuals’ movements could not be tracked over the course of multiple days. Id. at 715–16. He reasoned that the Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit had upheld more intrusive forms of aerial surveillance, and that the Supreme Court's decision in Carpenter v. United States , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 2206, 201 L.Ed.2d 507 (2018), did not abrogate those precedents. Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle , 456 F.Supp.3d at 711–16.


As a preliminary matter, we reject the defendants’ argument that plaintiffs lack standing to bring this lawsuit. Article III of the Constitution limits the judicial power of the United States to "Cases" and "Controversies." U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. To implement this limitation on judicial power, the Supreme Court has explained that a litigant must show an injury in fact, that...

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