Public Record Media

Public record research • Public interest publication Transparency litigation • Public affairs education

Records: Police now legally fly drones lots of places, including into bedrooms

By Mike Kaszuba

The police drone flew into a second-floor apartment unit in Eagan, searching for a burglary suspect.  A police officer called out that anyone inside the apartment should not touch the drone.  As the drone began to slowly move from room to room, a woman finally emerged from a closet and was arrested.

“I again deployed the drone back into the apartment unit and continued to clear it,” Officer Jacob Peterson wrote in an August 2021 incident report.  “I cleared it to the best of my ability before landing the drone into one of the bedrooms.”

The episode in Eagan, a Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb, provides details of how police are legally using drones in Minnesota under a 2020 law that was intended to provide restrictions on their use by law enforcement authorities.  But the law gave police nine exemptions – including when there is a suspicion of a crime being committed, as was cited in the Eagan case – that allow officers to use drones without first obtaining a search warrant.

Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in St. Paul, obtained police reports documenting drone usage in three Minnesota cities, Eagan, Edina and Rochester, that state records show have been aggressive in deploying drones without a search warrant.

The data obtained by PRM provides case-by-case examples of how some law enforcement agencies are using drones without a search warrant under the exemptions provided in the new law.

And examples of other police departments in Minnesota using drones without a search warrant are growing.

One high-profile case occurred earlier in May 2024 in Blaine, a Minneapolis suburb, where police used a drone to fly over a large fight that was taking place at a Northtown Mall carnival.  Aerial footage from the drone, which aired on local media broadcasts, showed people running and punching each other as police tried to stop the fighting.

Mark Boerboom, a Blaine police spokesman, confirmed to PRM that police flew the drone without a search warrant using an exemption in the 2020 law that allows them to do so “over a public event where there is a heightened risk to the safety of participants or bystanders.”

Police drone user:  “I monitored the front doors”

Meanwhile, police records obtained by PRM provide vivid details of how one suburb – Eagan – has used drones without a search warrant.

At least twice in 2022, an Eagan police drone hovered outside the front door of a Kohl’s store as officers waited for suspected shoplifters to exit the building.  “[I] monitored the front doors until the suspects exited the store,” an officer wrote of one of the incidents.  “Once the suspects were taken into custody I landed the drone.”

In 2021, Eagan police even used a drone to search for a suspect who had reportedly stolen a $2.99 can of bean dip from a gas station – the search was unsuccessful.

Eagan police used drones because of a suspicion of a crime being committed 19 times in 2021, according to state records, and in 35 instances in 2022.

In one incident in early January 2022, Eagan police used a drone to monitor a motel room where a man believed to be driving a stolen vehicle was staying.  “I performed aerial surveillance of the [stolen] vehicle,” an officer said in a police report.  “I was able to maintain a live video feed of [the] drone from my patrol car for situational awareness.”

A suspect who exited the motel room and was then observed getting into the stolen vehicle was arrested, police said.

The use of drones without a search warrant has drawn some concerns, including from a former state legislator who recently told PRM that he was uneasy with some of the exemptions that were successfully inserted into the legislation by the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association.  John Lesch, a former state legislator from St. Paul, said he “still get[s] torqued” that police were given an exemption to use drones in some instances for surveillance at public gatherings.

The nine exemptions include allowing a drone to fly over a public event “where there is a heightened risk to the safety of participants or bystanders” and “to conduct a threat assessment in anticipation of a specific event.”  The exemptions also include using drones without a search warrant in the aftermath of an emergency situation, and for officer training and public relations purposes.

Since the legislation became law, the overall use of drones by law enforcement without a search warrant in Minnesota has steadily risen.  The overall use of drones without a search warrant statewide has gone from more than 1,100 times in 2020 to more than 2,200 in 2021 – and then increased by 31.7 percent to 3,076 instances in 2022 (the most recent year for which state data is available).

In Edina, another Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb, police have also increasingly used drones without a search warrant.

In April 2021, for example, police used a drone to monitor possible citizen protests at the upscale Galleria shopping mall in Edina.  In 2021, 2022 and 2023, Edina police used drones without a warrant in two missing persons cases, an attempted suicide, at least three cases of people fleeing from stolen vehicles and also while investigating a suspicious vehicle.

But the police reports from the three cities in addition showed that the drones can be important during critical situations – especially in light of the deaths of two Burnsville police officers and a firefighter who were killed in February by an armed man who confronted police as they responded to a domestic incident at a home.

Two years before those fatalities, Eagan police launched a drone at another Burnsville residence after receiving a report that a man had assaulted a woman and was reportedly armed.

In the July 2022 case, police decided to fly the drone into the apartment unit – and said they did not need a search warrant because of the exemptions in the 2020 law.

“I did operate the drone indoors,” said Officer Chris Roche.  “While operating the drone inside of the apartment, I did observe the suspect present himself from the last room that needed to be checked.”  The suspect, according to police, was quickly taken into custody.

In Rochester, according to police records obtained by PRM, police also used a drone in February 2023 to clear a residence whose owner suspected someone had broken into the dwelling in an attempted burglary.

“Helped clear the residence,” a police dispatch reported.

“Drone used by officers and announcements made,” a follow-up dispatch stated.

Meanwhile, Rochester police records show that drones have been used multiple times without a search warrant to conduct so-called threat assessments in anticipation of a specific event, another of the nine exemptions allowed under the 2020 law.

In 2022, according to state data, Rochester police used drones in such instances 15 times -- the most times a law enforcement agency operated drones using that exemption in Minnesota that year.

Those instances, according to Rochester police data obtained by PRM, included a variety of incidents.

Police used a drone without a search warrant to conduct a threat assessment in September 2022 to search for a suicidal person in the woods possibly armed with an AR-15 rifle.  Two months earlier, police used a drone to conduct a threat assessment as officers responded to a report of a group of people fighting.  And in December 2022 police used a drone for a threat assessment as they approached a home where there had been a 9-1-1 call, with the caller then abruptly hanging up.

Police records showed that none of the incidents led to an arrest.

Rochester police also used the same exemption multiple times in 2023 to fly drones without a search warrant, from following a homicide suspect last March who had fled on foot to searching last April for another suspect with an outstanding warrant who had left a Walmart after an argument with a female. (The suspect with the outstanding warrant was later arrested, according to police records, though the drone did not locate the suspect).

Over a three day period in July 2023, police in the city used a drone three times without a search warrant to conduct a threat assessment of separate residences following a “suspicious” or “unknown” call for assistance.

On two occasions on the Fourth of July in 2023, police in Rochester also used a drone without a search warrant to investigate whether there were any safety risks to the public – another of the exemptions under the 2020 law -- before and after a holiday fireworks display.

In Edina, linking drones to arrests remains difficult

In Edina, police reports revealed one other aspect:  That measuring the success of using drones without a search warrant can be difficult.

Of the 13 times in 2021 that Edina police used drones because of a suspicion that a crime might be committed, just one instance led to an arrest.  Six instances did not lead to an arrest.  In three other instances, according to data provided by police in the city, it was not known whether the episodes had led to an arrest.  In the remaining three instances, police said data was not available.

According to a state report, Edina spent roughly $16,000 on its drone program in 2021, and had 172 flights that did not require a search warrant.  In 2022, the most recent year for which state data is available, Edina spent $7,400 on its drone program, and had 136 drone flights that did not require a search warrant.

While Edina, Eagan and Rochester have been aggressive in deploying drones, other cities in Minnesota have not.

In 2022, for example, state records showed that Eagan police flew a drone legally without a search warrant on 191 occasions.  Bloomington, the state’s fourth largest city, by contrast flew drones without a search warrant 47 times.  State records for Burnsville, another large suburb, do not show any drone flights without a search warrant in 2022.

Records obtained by PRM show that police in Eagan, Edina and Rochester have used drones without a search warrant in other unusual circumstances.

In July 2022, Eagan police were called to Bloomington after an alarm sounded in a building that was under construction and police believed at least one suspect was hiding in the building.

“I ultimately did deploy the drone.  In searching the rooftop of the building,” wrote Officer Roche, “I did locate a heat signature on the northwest corner of the rooftop.  After further inspection, it was clear that it was an individual hiding behind an object against the wall.

“At one point, a speaker was attached to the drone,” Roche added.  “A Bloomington [o]fficer did make a recording that was played on a loop several times advising the suspects that they were under arrest and to step out with their hands up.  This was played while hovering over where one of the suspects was observed.”

Police said the suspects were arrested shortly afterward.

In September 2021, police in Eagan arrived at a duplex where a man had reportedly poured gasoline inside the home and threatened to burn down the building.  According to a police report, a police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team was called but officers were hesitant to enter the building because of the smell of gasoline.

A witness said the suspect at one point was banging a frying pan against a wall, and even went running outside naked.

As part of the episode, three police officers flew 15 drone flights after asking for permission to fly a drone inside and outside the building.

The suspect eventually emerged from the building and was eventually arrested after the police standoff.

But according to the police reports from the three Minnesota cities the drones do have limits.

In April 2022, a suspect – in handcuffs – ran from police in Burnsville after being placed in custody at an apartment complex.  A police officer “assisted as a visual observer while I was piloting the drone with an active perimeter set up and a canine being used,” wrote Officer Autum Shurbert-Hetzel.

“After checking the area of the apartment complex and the surrounding wooded areas, the male suspect was not located,” the police officer stated.

(Supporting documents for this article can be accessed by contacting Public Record Media at , or at 651-556-1381)


Filter by Topic

  • All
  • 2016 election (3)
  • 2020 election (2)
  • Abortion (1)
  • Alan Page (3)
  • Amazon (5)
  • Anoka County (2)
  • BCA (2)
  • Barack Obama (3)
  • Bill McGuire (2)
  • Bob Dylan (1)
  • Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (3)
  • COVID (4)
  • Cargill (2)
  • Chanhassen (1)
  • Check Topics (3)
  • Congress (1)
  • DEED (7)
  • Dakota Access Pipeline (2)
  • Donald Trump (17)
  • Drones (4)
  • Eagan (2)
  • Edina (1)
  • Edward Snowden (1)
  • Espionage Act (1)
  • FBI (9)
  • Federal Aviation Administration (3)
  • Federal Communications Commision (1)
  • Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis (3)
  • Federal Transit Administration (1)
  • Financial Services Roundtable (1)
  • FoxConn (1)
  • George Floyd (4)
  • Glen Taylor (1)
  • Google (1)
  • Gov. Arne Carlson (1)
  • Gov. Mark Dayton (7)
  • Gov. Scott Walker (1)
  • Gov. Tim Pawlenty (1)
  • Gov. Tim Walz (3)
  • Greater MSP (7)
  • Health Partners (1)
  • Hennepin County (1)
  • Hennepin County Attorney's Office (1)
  • Hennepin County Sheriff's Office (6)
  • Hillary Clinton (2)
  • Huawei (1)
  • Hubbard family (1)
  • Immigration (3)
  • InfraGard (2)
  • J. Edgar Hoover (1)
  • Jamar Clark (1)
  • Jerry Kill (1)
  • Joan Gabel (1)
  • Joe Biden (4)
  • Justice Antonin Scalia (1)
  • KSTP-TV (1)
  • Kenneth Dahlberg (1)
  • Marv Davidov (2)
  • Medtronic (1)
  • Met Council (2)
  • Metro Transit (2)
  • Minneapolis (8)
  • Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey (3)
  • Minneapolis rally (2)
  • Minnesota (13)
  • Minnesota Attorney General (2)
  • Minnesota Council of Health Plans (1)
  • Minnesota Department of Health (1)
  • Minnesota Department of Human Services (1)
  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (1)
  • Minnesota Department of Transportation (3)
  • Minnesota Management and Budget (1)
  • Minnesota State Fair (1)
  • Minnesota State Patrol (1)
  • Minnesota United FC (3)
  • Minnesota Vikings (9)
  • Minnesota state auditor (1)
  • Myron Frans (1)
  • National Football League (3)
  • National Guard (1)
  • National Transportation Safety Board (1)
  • Neel Kashkari (4)
  • PJ Fleck (1)
  • Page Amendent (3)
  • Peter Smith (2)
  • Pohlad family (1)
  • PolyMet (2)
  • Prince (1)
  • Prinsburg (1)
  • Public Record Media (6)
  • Public Records (1)
  • Ramsey County Sheriff's Office (2)
  • Richard Painter (1)
  • Robert Mueller III (2)
  • Rochester (1)
  • Row The Boat (1)
  • Scott County (2)
  • Securian Financial (1)
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (1)
  • Sen. Rod Grams (1)
  • Sherburne County (1)
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation (1)
  • St. Louis Park (1)
  • St. Paul (8)
  • St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman (1)
  • Sterling Medical Associates (1)
  • Stillwater Bridge (1)
  • Super Bowl (5)
  • TCF Bank Stadium (1)
  • Tesla (1)
  • Texas (1)
  • Third Precinct (1)
  • Twin Metals (2)
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (1)
  • U.S. Marshal's Office (1)
  • U.S. Supreme Court (2)
  • US Bank (2)
  • US Bank Stadium (6)
  • US Bureau of Land Management (2)
  • US Department of Defense (5)
  • US Department of Justice (2)
  • US Forest Service (2)
  • United Health Group (1)
  • University of Minnesota (11)
  • Washington County (1)
  • Watergate (1)
  • Wayzata (1)
  • White Bear Lake (1)
  • Wisconsin (2)
  • Wisconsin TV station (1)
  • firearm background checks (1)
  • health management organizations (1)
  • homelessness (1)
  • ilhan omar (1)
  • non-disclosure agreement (1)
  • public records (11)