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State’s DHSMV seeking permission to use drones

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

The state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) will ask lawmakers next session to consider legislation to “allow law enforcement to use drones for traffic crash management.”

The proposed bill is part of a “legislative concepts” package Executive Director Terry Rhodes plans to present at Tuesday’s Florida Cabinet meeting.

The state law governing drones, the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, already includes an exception for “aerial mapping.” But a DHSMV spokeswoman says it doesn’t apply to the agency.

The department reports to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet: Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The document explains that state law now prohibits law enforcement agencies from using drones “for surveillance and evidence gathering.”

Lawmakers in Florida and across the country have been passing laws related to drone aircraft in recent years. In Florida, the concerns have been mostly about invasions of privacy.

But the Florida Highway Patrol, which falls under the DHSMV, wants to use the remote-controlled flying machines “for complex traffic crash scenes where aerial photos and scene mapping can aid in clearing roads.”

Most commonly, drones are small helicopter-type craft used by hobbyists and others, and often equipped with cameras.

In 2013, Florida first enacted a measure limiting law enforcement from using drones to gather evidence in criminal cases. Two years later, the law was amended to prohibit using drones to photograph private property without the owner’s consent.

The law, however, says it “does not prohibit the use of a drone … for aerial mapping, if the person or entity using a drone for this purpose is operating in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.”

DHSMV spokeswoman Beth Frady explained that “state law … is more restrictive than federal law.”

“This means FHP is currently unable to collect aerial photos or aerial scene maps from traffic crashes, which can aid in clearing Florida’s roads more expeditiously,” she said in an email. “The legislative concept … could create a pilot program with specific criteria and measures that could be reported to the Legislature to determine the recommendations of the program.

“The pilot seeks to allow law enforcement the ability to use drones for traffic crash management and clearance in hopes of partnering with the (Department of Transportation’s) traffic management operations.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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