No drone zone: Negron's bill seeks to limit drone use

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Police would be prohibited from using un-manned drones to gather evidence or other information, under a bill filed Thursday by a Senate Republican.

The Federal Aviation Authority has begun allowing police departments across the country to use remote control aircraft, or drones, and some are starting to. Miami Police were the first agency in the nation to do so.

Police in Miami have been testing drones since 2009, using two 18-pound aircraft, one bought with a grant from the federal government, but have typically only flown the drones over the Everglades and below 400 feet.

The bill (SB 92), filed by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, would allow the use of drones to counter terrorism risks, but would prevent police from using them to take pictures that would be used as evidence.

“I support using drones to kill terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Negron said. “But they shouldn’t be used to spy on American citizens.… If the police get a search warrant, and they have probable cause to believe a crime’s occurring, that’s fine. But I’m very opposed to making it a general practice to spy on law-abiding Floridians.”

People who learn that police are using them in such a way may be able to sue the agency, and the evidence wouldn’t be admissible, under the proposal. Negron said he already has lined up a House sponsor, and said he’ll work hard to pass the measure this year.

The use of drones by police is generally opposed by the ACLU, which released a report a year ago calling for limits on their use, and warning that drones may “profoundly change the character of public life,” especially as they become more sophisticated. The Republican Party also had a line in its platform this year supporting limits on aerial surveillance, and there have been bills filed at the federal level to restrict them.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed federal legislation that requires the Federal Aviation Administration to plan for the safe integration of civilian drones into the nation’s airspace by 2015.

Negron said he doesn’t know how common it is in Florida – or even if any police agencies other than Miami’s are using them. But he also said he’s not confident police departments would even tell citizens if they were.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, have also been used in the same ways traditional aircraft have been used for aerial photography: to document environmental damage, even to monitor traffic.

Opponents of their use by police agencies say some civilian uses may be OK, but Americans have a basic interest in not being secretly photographed by the government.

“There’s a healthy tension between security and liberty and we’ve gone way in the wrong direction in the way of violating our rights,” Negron said.

Via David Royse of the News Service of Florida.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.