Florida Moves Closer To Banning Surveillance By Police Drones

When the Miami-Dade Police Department acquired two drones in 2010 and then got FAA clearance to fly them, civil rights advocates warned the move was a harbinger of the Blade Runner police state to come when unmanned aircraft would hover outside every window. That privacy nightmare could still come to pass, but it's looking increasingly unlikely in Florida.

MDPD still has yet to actually use either of its drones, and now the Florida Senate has moved closer to banning all surveillance by police drones.

See also:

-- Miami-Dade Police Buy Drones
-- Miami-Dade Police Drones Go Unused, But the Department Isn't Ready To Throw In The Towel
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"Drones are fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they shouldn't be used to monitor the lawful activities of Floridians," Sen. Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican behind the bill, tells the AP.

The bill wouldn't outright ban police drones, but it would ban police from gathering "evidence or other information" with unmanned aircraft, make any info captured by drones inadmissible in court, and give residents power to sue departments that break the rule.

Negron's bill easily passed the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee this week with support from other Republicans worried about the privacy implications of police drones.

Truth is, FAA rules have already hamstrung MDPD -- the only agency in the state that actually owns unmanned surveillance aircraft -- to the point that it's never had a chance to actually use its drones.

The department got two T-Hawk drones in December 2010, one with a Homeland Security grant and the other through an annual $1 lease from maker Honeywell.

Pilots have actively trained to use the device, which looks more or less like a hovering trash can, but FAA rules are strict: They can only fly it below 300 feet, outside city limits, during the day and within sight of the operator.

MDPD could only dream up one realistic scenario within those guidelines: Someone armed and holed up in a rural building. Police hoped the drones might help keep sight of the suspect without putting anyone at risk of getting shot.

The new bill wouldn't expressly forbid that use, but any evidence gathered in the process wouldn't be usable in court and the department could open itself up to a lawsuit afterward.

That sounds just fine to the ACLU, which backs Negron's bill.

"Technology has pushed us into a new frontier in privacy and the principals behind Sen. Negron's bill establish guideposts for how to keep Floridians both safe and free in this new era," Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU Florida, tells AP.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink