Proposed bill seeks to expand Florida law enforcement drone use

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With hobbyist and commercial drones increasingly filling the skies, regulating how they can be used and who can fly them presents regulatory concerns for state legislatures, particularly when it comes to privacy rights and law enforcement.

Florida lawmakers during their 2020 session adopted House Bill 659 by unanimous votes in both chambers, lifting restrictions in state law to allow non-law enforcement employees of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Forest Service to use drones to manage the eradication of invasive exotic plants or animals and to suppress wildfires.

Another drone-related bill, Senate Bill 520, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, would have created exceptions in the state law to allow expanded use of drones by law enforcement agencies under specific circumstances.

After passing two committees, however, SB 520 died in the Senate Rules Committee. Gruters filed a similar bill in 2019.

Gruters, the Republican Party of Florida chairperson, has not filed a 2021 version of his drone measures but a near replica has been filed for the legislative session that begins in Tallahassee on March 2.

Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Wright, R-Port Orange, filed Senate Bill 44 on Monday. It would allow law enforcement to use drones to monitor large crowds, assist with traffic control and collect crime scene evidence.

Under a 2013 state law, a Florida law enforcement agency may not use a drone to gather evidence or other information.

Law enforcement cannot legally use a drone in Florida “to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image in violation of such person’s reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent,” under state law.

Under Wright’s proposed bill, several exceptions to those restrictions are proposed:

• To provide a law enforcement agency with an aerial perspective of a crowd of 50 people or more;

• To assist a law enforcement agency with traffic management, although the bill prohibits police from issuing “a traffic infraction citation based on images or video captured by a drone;”

• To facilitate a law enforcement agency’s collection of evidence at a crime scene or traffic crash scene. While judges still can issue warrants allowing the use of drones by law enforcement if there is a “high risk of terrorist attack,” or if officials fear someone is in imminent danger, they still cannot be used for general law enforcement surveillance;

• For the assessment of damage because of a flood, wildfire or any other natural disaster or for vegetation or wildlife management on publicly owned land or water by a state agency or local government;

• “To perform tasks within the scope and practice authorized under their certifications” by certified fire department personnel.

During a hearing before the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee in February, the last panel that passed SB 520, Gruters said his bill makes it “crystal clear” what law enforcement can do and not do with drones.

“This bill is very, very specific on what law enforcement can do, and it does not change, amend or alter the constitutional privacy protections that are in place now,” Gruters said. “And so you can rest assured that this is a good bill and it is widely supported.”

SB 520, however, drew raised eyebrows from Democrats and Republicans, citing concerns over citizens’ 4th Amendment rights.

“We don’t want this to become something that gets used voyeuristically by law enforcement or anybody else to go out and surveil people and what have you without public right-of-way type of cause,” former Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said.

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