Police and other government officials would be prohibited from using unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, to spy on citizens in Florida under a bill that flew through the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday.
The measure (SB 92) includes some exceptions but in most cases would ban law and code enforcement agencies from gathering evidence or other information with drones. Evidence gathered in violation of the ban would be inadmissible in criminal court cases. Citizens also could sue agencies that violate the prohibition.
"Drones are fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they shouldn't be used to monitor the lawful activities," said Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who is sponsoring the bill. "We shouldn't as a general practice have drones hovering in the sky monitoring Floridians."
Congress last year gave the Federal Aviation Authority the power to permit drone use by government public safety agencies, but it has been moving slowly, with airspace safety and privacy cited as issues.
"There's always a delicate balance between freedom and security, but I believe this bill is necessary to protect citizens so that we don't err on the side of having our right to privacy and our right to due process violated," Negron said.
The Miami-Dade Police Department is the only Florida law enforcement agency equipped with drones but so far has made little use of them, according to a Senate staff analysis. The department has two drones, one obtained through a federal grant and the other through a $1 annual lease with the manufacturer, Honeywell Corp.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office obtained an FAA certificate of authorization, but after a year of trials it dropped plans to use drones, citing the cost of complying with federal regulations, particularly pilot training requirements.
Negron's bill already included an exception for terrorism-related searches, but he agreed to a few more changes to make it more acceptable to police chiefs and sheriffs before the unanimous vote.
The panel added exceptions to the ban for search warrants signed by judges and for "exigent" circumstances such as fires or hostage situations with no time to get a warrant.
The bill's supporters include Sen. Charles Dean, an Inverness Republican and former sheriff, who said his only worry was that it isn't restrictive enough.
"I know this kind of sounds goofy coming from a guy on the other side of the handcuffs, but I really am concerned that we make sure we go far enough to protect citizens' rights," Dean said.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said he thought the bill's definition of a drone may be too loose and could permit law enforcement to find a way around the ban. Simmons also questioned the lack of definitions for "evidence" and "other information."
Negron said he would work with Simmons on tightening the bill's language before its next committee stop. It has been referred to three other Senate committees. A similar bill (HB 119) has been filed in the House but hasn't yet gotten a hearing.