Florida Legislation Could Bolster Police Use of Drones

A bill unanimously passed by the Florida Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee aims to expand the use of drones by law enforcement and government agencies, spurring concern among privacy and civil rights advocates.

a hand reaching up to grab a drone
A bill unanimously passed by the Florida Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee looks to expand the use of drones by state law enforcement and government agencies to assist with traffic management and the collection of information related to crime scenes. 

As currently written, Senate Bill 44 states that drones can be used in four ways: to assist law enforcement agencies with traffic management, though a law enforcement agency cannot issue a traffic infraction citation based on images or video captured by a drone; to assist law enforcement agencies in collecting evidence at a crime scene or traffic crash scene; to allow state and local agencies to use drones to assess damage after floods, wildfires and other natural disasters; and to assist fire department personnel in performing tasks within the scope and practice authorized under their certifications.

“This bill will greatly improve law enforcement’s ability to protect our communities and keep people safe,” bill sponsor Sen. Tom Wright said in an email. “Law enforcement has this technology available, and we must ensure our laws are kept up to date to enhance public safety in our state.”

However, privacy concerns regarding the legislation resulted in a recent amendment prohibiting the use of drones to get an aerial perspective of a crowd of 50 people or more. Privacy and civil rights advocates say there were concerns when looking at the bill through the lens of free speech.

“The concern with using drones or any type of surveillance tech to survey, for example, protests, violates peoples’ first amendment rights,” Matthew Guariglia, a political analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said. “If at every protest drones were flying overhead and they used facial recognition tech to identify the individuals attending these protests, it would make people less inclined to be politically active and violate their privacy.”

In terms of using drones to assist local law enforcement in collecting evidence, Guariglia said, “a lot of police departments have been excited at the prospect of using drones, however, there has been very little evidence that they help in these situations.”

One example, he said, was seen in Baltimore, Md. In August 2016, Bloomberg released a report stating that the Baltimore Police Department led a secret aerial surveillance program that utilized planes to capture over 300 hours of footage used by police to investigate alleged crimes, causing backlash from residents and civil liberties groups.

“The problem,” he said, “is that no matter what a drone intends to look at, it usually ends up picking up more than expected. It sets a precedent for using this technology to look into areas that law enforcement wouldn’t necessarily be able to access without a warrant.”

Another potential misuse of this technology is for the enforcement of social distancing guidelines in response to COVID-19.

“We have recently seen that surveillance companies have pitched to law enforcement agencies the use of drones to fight against COVID by enforcing social distancing guidelines, but what happens after COVID is over?” Guariglia said. “Those drones won’t be sitting in a warehouse; they will be used for something else.”

As for the status of the bill, it is currently being reviewed by the Senate's Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security Committee.

Editor’s note: Incorrect information about the 2018 removal of Baltimore’s former police commissioner, Kevin Davis, was removed from this story.

Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University, and more than five years of experience in the print and digital news industry.