Drug evidence found from drone video admissible, COA rules

Video of suspected drug activity from a drone aircraft a woman found in her yard is admissible in court to try her neighbor on charges including dealing methamphetamine, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

Galen Byers will return to Jay Circuit Court to face charges of Level 2 felony dealing in methamphetamine, Level 4 felony possession of methamphetamine, Level 6 felony maintaining a common nuisance, and misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

Byers was charged after a neighbor found a drone on her property while mowing her lawn in Portland. Using a little detective work, she found video on the drone depicting a woman taking out a baggie with white powder substance and a cut-off straw, which she thought to be drug-related. She also recognized Byers in the video, with who she had prior issues with drones being flown on her property, and she turned the drone over to police a couple of days later.

A Jay County sheriff’s officer viewed the video and obtained a warrant for Byers’ home, and a search turned up meth, paraphernalia, a safe containing a gun and cash that police believed were connected to drug activity, resulting in the criminal charges.

Byers moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search was improper under the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution because of the manner in which the drone came into law enforcement possession and because probable cause was stale.

The trial court rejected Byers’ claims, as did the Indiana Court of Appeals in Galen Byers v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-246.

Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote that there was a maximum of four days between the time the video was captured on the drone and the search warrant were executed — less than half the time in which probable cause was determined not stale in cases such as Huffines v. State, 739 N.E.2d 1093 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000), trans. denied and Ashley v. State, 241 N.E.2d 264 (Ind. 1968).

“Moreover, while we look at the date of the video footage to determine whether probable cause existed, some lapse can also be accounted for here because (the neighbor) was in possession of the drone for likely at least one of those days,” Tavitas wrote.

“And, although we acknowledge that the woman in the video handled the alleged substances, the video also shows another individual — a man who (the neighbor) testified was Byers — handling the drone moments later in the same and subsequent video recordings.  Based on the facts and circumstances before us, we cannot say that a four-day period between the activity and the finding of probable cause renders the warrant constitutionally stale.”

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