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By Jessica Travis on Friday, May 26, 2017
The last several years have seen a burst in the availability and popularity of unmanned aerial vehicle technology—more commonly known as drones. Most drones are equipped with cameras and some even have the capability for the user to attach weapons. With this increase in popularity, police departments and other law enforcement agencies have latched on to the technology and developed their own drone programs. In 2015, Florida lawmakers passed legislation in an attempt to contain any potential privacy violations that could occur through the increased use of drone technology in police surveillance. Florida Statute §934.50 governs the use of drones by the government in Florida. The law is known as the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act. The law is available to view at: http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0900-0999/0934/Sections/0934.50.html
This statute places several restrictions on the use of drones by police without warrants. Generally, the police cannot use a drone to gather any evidence or information without first getting a search warrant signed by the judge. The statute defines what the lawmakers considered to be a drone.
“Drone” means a powered, aerial vehicle that:
1. Does not carry a human operator;
2. Uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift;
3. Can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely;
4. Can be expendable or recoverable; and
5. Can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload.
This law, however, does not mean that police departments have given up on using unmanned aerial technology to monitor private
people from above. For example: on December 28, 2018, the Miami-Dade Police Department used a small helium-filled blimp, that remained tethered to the ground, to monitor the activities of 15,000 people at a beach party related to the Orange Bowl. The police department expressed that in their interpretation of the law, the blimp did not qualify as a “drone.”
The law may not stay as it is for long. Currently, there is a bill working its way through the Florida House of Representatives and Senate known as “Expanded Uses of Unmanned Aircraft.” If enacted as law, this bill would increase the uses of drones permitted to law enforcement in the performance of their duties and become effective on July 1, 2019. One version of the bill would change Florida Statute §934.50 to allow the use of drones to assist in crowd control or traffic management; to facilitate collection of evidence at a crime scene or traffic crash scene; and would allow for state agencies or political subdivisions to use drones for the assessment of damage due to a flood, wildfire, or natural disaster or for land management. Information about this bill can be found at: https://www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Bills/billsdetail.aspx?BillId=62949&sui=Zsdo4wtZOQI%3d-
Both the United States Constitution and Florida Constitution protect citizens from unlawful searches and seizures. This has generally been interpreted as requiring police to get a warrant before they can search for evidence. With the passage of this bill there may become changes to what is considered a lawful or unlawful search. Determining whether a search is lawful or unlawful depends on the specific facts. If you have been arrested or accused of a crime and feel your rights have been violated it is important to discuss your specific facts with an experienced attorney.
Co-authored by Benjamin Hamilton.
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