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Bill Seeks Expanded Use Of Drones

Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media

A new bill would expand certain uses of drones for law enforcement agencies.

A bill filed Monday in the Florida Senate would allow law enforcement to use drones to monitor large crowds, assist with traffic control and collect crime-scene evidence.

Sen. Tom Wright, a New Smyrna Beach Republican who chairs the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee, is sponsoring the bill (SB 44), which would expand the allowed uses of unmanned aircraft so law enforcement would be able to get aerial perspectives of crowds topping 50 people.

The proposal also would let law enforcement use drones to assist in managing traffic and to collect evidence at crime scenes and traffic crashes, while allowing state agencies to use the devices for assessing damage from floods, wildfires and other natural disasters.

The proposal would prohibit drones from being used to issue traffic tickets.

A 2013 state law restricts the use of drones for surveillance. Law enforcement is also prohibited, with certain exceptions, from using drones to gather evidence or other information.

Judges can issue warrants allowing the use of drones if there is a "high risk of terrorist attack" or if officials fear someone is in imminent danger. Wright’s bill is filed for consideration during the 2021 legislative session, which will start in March.

Similar bills have been proposed in past legislative sessions, including the 2020 session. Lawmakers during the 2020 session approved a measure that allows non-law enforcement employees of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to operate aerial drones for eradication efforts of invasive plants and animals on public lands.

That bill, which took effect July 1, also lets the Florida Forest Service use drones to mitigate the threat of wildfires on public lands.