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Eyes in the sky: What Savanna’s case taught us about Fargo police surveillance

CBP Air and Marine group conduct aerial operations with their UAS aircraft over areas affected by Hurricane Ike to help broadly assess damage so as to better deploy rescuers to specific areas with the most need.1 / 3
William Hoehn watches testimony Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in District Court, Fargo, during his trial for conspiracy to commit murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old who’s baby was cut from her womb. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 3
A CBP UAS aircraft stands by ready for patrol along the southern border of the United States.3 / 3

FARGO — A detail that came to light in last month's high-profile trial in the grisly case of slain Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind was that drones were used to surveil the suspects.

This technically-advanced tactic isn't typically used here, but the Fargo Police Department teamed up with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to enhance levels of surveillance in the murder and kidnapping case that rocked the region and country.

One of the suspects, William Hoehn, is being sentenced Monday, Oct. 29, after pleading guilty of conspiring to commit kidnapping and lying to police. Hoehn was acquitted of conspiring to murder LaFontaine-Greywind, who was eight months pregnant when she disappeared from her apartment in August 2017.

Her body was found about a week later in the Red River after police found her infant daughter in Hoehn's apartment. He lived with his then-girlfriend, Brooke Crews, who is serving a life sentencing without chance for parole.

Chief David Todd said the "sinister" nature of this case led to partnering with border officials.

"We were dealing with what we found to be a murder case, so you do things in order to solve really serious cases like this and the reason you're working hard to solve cases like this is for public safety," Todd said. "Do I think it (the drone) was appropriate? Yes, I do. But I recognize that it's not an asset we can call on for just any (case)."

Todd said there were three levels of surveillance used to monitor Hoehn and Crews: physical eyes on the suspects, GPS tracking and a third layer of electronic surveillance.

"It's not very often that we incorporate all three. Sometimes we'll do one or two at a time, but it's rare that we got all three going," he said.

The first layer of monitoring Crews and Hoehn were actual eyes-on covert officers physically watching without being seen by the public. Police obtained a warrant to place a GPS tracker, the second layer of surveillance, on Hoehn's vehicle.

Under the third layer of electronic surveillance, Todd said police used a drone from U.S. Customs Border Patrol. There is another form of electronic surveillance used in this case, but Todd wouldn't elaborate on what this entailed. He did say, however, this other electronic surveillance was used "within the boundaries of the law."

While a warrant was required for the GPS tracker, it wasn't for the drone.

Todd explained the difference is a tracker is being put on somebody's property. But with aerial surveillance, "you're only able to see and look at things that are out in the general public," he said. "We can't look through walls or windows of houses or anything like that. We can just see things from a high altitude that are out and visible to the public."

With the aerial surveillance, Todd said sometimes there were unmanned aircrafts and other fixed aircrafts involved, courtesy of the Border Patrol.

Kristoffer Grogan, a Border Patrol spokesman, said in an email to The Forum that the federal agency's Air and Marine Operations has assisted Fargo Police a couple of times this past year. The agency deploys an unmanned aircraft system — referred to as UAS, but commonly known as drones — which Grogan said is an advantage for its endurance and lack of detectability.

"Due to the high altitudes that UAS operate, they are less likely to be detected," he said, "And with increased endurance, they may provide on scene assistance much longer than most manned aircraft."

Law enforcement's use of drones is a concern for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Andrew Malone, an ACLU North Dakota representative, said the national organization isn't "outright opposed to drone usage." But such usage shouldn't violate civil liberties.

In the balance between security and liberty, Malone said this new technology becoming more available could tip that balance and jeopardize a person's right to privacy.

Drones are now cheaper and more powerful, and the ACLU wants to ensure privacy laws are strong enough to comply with the Bill of Rights.

There are some restrictions on the use of drones, but the ACLU argues privacy laws aren't strong enough for the powerful form of surveillance. North Dakota law prohibits the use of lethal weapons by drones. While the law outlines warrant requirements, there are exceptions for surveillance in exigent circumstances.

Todd said his department wouldn't use drones to surveil an ordinary person; rather, they are used in extreme situations. But Malone said this needs to be reflected in the law.

"I can respect the judgment of an officer. At the same time," Malone said, "we would prefer to have strict rules and laws they have to follow when using new technology like this."

The ACLU is pushing for the state to prohibit drones being outfitted with non-lethal weapons, such as tasers. Malone said there was a bill to do just that, but it failed to pass in 2017.

He said the organization has concerns about drones being equipped with facial recognition and powerful microphones. The ACLU is also concerned with what happens to the information drones collect and how, where and how long the data is stored.

"It all comes back to privacy rights," Malone said. "It's definitely an issue we are concerned about and keeping an eye on."

Malone said last year, ACLU reached out to 14 different sheriffs and police chiefs in North Dakota to discuss issues with drones and body cameras. The ACLU also asked to be involved with the state's drone task force commission, but Malone said the organization "didn't get a positive response."

Overall, the ACLU aims to have clear laws about when and how drones can be used, he said.

Todd said ultimately the surveillance tactics used yielded the results needed, and he doesn't think the community should be concerned about law enforcement abusing drone surveillance.

"I think people need to understand that they are under surveillance far more through private camera systems that are in every business, just about every shopping mall, every store far, far more than they're under any surveillance by any type of government cameras," he said.

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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