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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Police Could Observe Crowds Of 50 Or More With Drones Under Bill Heading To Senate

Police could use drones to survey crowds of 50 or more people under a bill advancing through the legislature. The measure is raising privacy concerns from a watchdog group.
Police could use drones to survey crowds of 50 or more people under a bill advancing through the legislature. The measure is raising privacy concerns from a watchdog group.

Police could use drones to survey crowds of 50 or more people under a bill advancing through the legislature. The measure is raising privacy concerns from a watchdog group.

State law prevents police from using drones to collect evidence or information unless they get a warrant from a judge. Already, there are several exceptions, and Sen. Tom Wright (R-Port Orange) wants to expand those even more. He says using drones can help protect law enforcement.

"It may be able to see something that you can't see from the ground that will protect them and save their lives," Wright says.

His bill would allow police to use drones to collect evidence at a crime scene or traffic crash without a warrant. Kara Gross is with the ACLU of Florida, a civil liberties watchdog group. She says Wright's bill undoes the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act—which the legislature approved several years ago.

"It's an entire reversal of our current statute that provides protections to Floridians against the unfettered discretion by law enforcement to use drones," Gross says.

Gross says the bill also doesn't define what a crime scene is, leaving it up to law enforcement to decide when to use the drones.

"So, if somebody is selling drugs in their high fenced-in backyard—is that a crime scene? Can a law enforcement officer send a drone to record every image of every person who is in the backyard of somebody because they think drugs are being sold there?"

When Wright first filed his proposal, it had a provision allowing police to use drones to get an aerial view of crowds of 50 or more. That provision was removed, then recently readded. Gross says that section of the measure has significant privacy implications.

"There [are] crowds of 50 or more people at weddings, at birthday parties, at marches, at street fairs, at parades, at protests, at football games, at tailgate parties, there's nothing in here that would prevent drones from being used whenever law enforcement wants to use them at any gathering over 50 people," Gross says.

The bill specifies that law enforcement agencies must have policies and procedures when using drones to observe crowds. They must have guidelines for using the drone and proper storage and release of images or video captured by the drone and must address the personal safety and constitutional protections of the people being observed. Officers would also need to get written authorization from the head of their law enforcement agency to use the drone. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) introduced the amendment to include these regulations. He says it's a privacy issue lawmakers will have to monitor in the coming years.

"Law enforcement will at least have to specifically authorize the use of that individual drone. That is the intent of it so that we don't have random drones just flying around and us not knowing what's going on because we see, you know, we're at a crowd downtown as part of a gathering of just individuals," Brandes says.

Brandes says he's concerned drones could be paired with facial recognition technology or thermal cameras.

"As much as I believe law enforcement gets to utilize this type of technology, we need to be very careful as a legislature of how far we let this go because we're going to get very close to fourth amendment issues," Brandes says.

Wright's measure has gained support from law enforcement associations and sheriff's departments. He says his bill isn't intended to violate personal rights.

"The idea to have the drones was to have the drones up to make sure there aren't opposite people coming to the original group of 50 to do them harm and allows law enforcement an advantage to come quickly to protect both sides," Wright says.

His measure is now heading to a vote on the Senate floor.

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