March 12, 2013

Lawmakers want drones grounded in Florida

The bill would ban local law enforcement officials from using drones without a warrant or threat of a terrorist attack and prohibit information collected by drones to be used as evidence in courts.

The backlash against the use of unmanned drones has found its way to Florida, where lawmakers are fast-tracking legislation to limit their use by local law enforcement.

“It’s fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan with drones,” said sponsor Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “But I don’t think we should use them to monitor the activities of law-abiding Floridians.”

Negron’s proposal, SB 92, would ban local law enforcement officials from using drones without a warrant or threat of a terrorist attack and prohibit information collected by drones to be used as evidence in courts.

For lawmakers, it’s more of a pre-emptive strike. Only three Florida law enforcement agencies have authorization to use drones — to observe, not to shoot — and none of them have used drones in a real-life situation.

Negron’s bill is similar to legislation filed in Congress by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who filibustered the confirmation of CIA director John Brennan over drone attacks overseas.

Drones, or unmanned flying aircraft, have been used since the Vietnam War. They range in size from six inches to 246 feet and weigh between four ounces and 25,600 pounds, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates their use in the United States. While popular in delivering bombs abroad, drones are also quite adept at collecting information. They can be outfitted with cameras so powerful that they can track objects 65 miles away, according to a Florida Senate staff analysis.

Several U.S. government agencies have already used drones, including the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which began using them in 2004.

In Florida, Miami-Dade Police Department became the first major metro police agency to get permission to operate drones — two Honeywell Corporation T-Hawk models — two years ago.

Sheriff’s deputies in Orange County also have approval to operate two drones. As does Polk County, though the sheriff’s office there grounded the program citing costs.

In February 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which requires the FAA to safely open the nation’s airspace to drones by September 2015. But stoked by Paul’s protests, concern over drones continues to grow. Bills similar to Negron’s are expected to be filed in California, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana and Virginia. The politics of opposition makes strange bedfellows who obey no party taboos.

So libertarian Republicans such as Negron are finding common cause with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which in January issued a statement endorsing the bill for establishing “guideposts for how to keep Floridians both safe and free in this new era.”

A third Senate committee unanimously approved the bill Tuesday. Its companion in the House, HB 119, has cleared two committees without a no vote.

For all its talk about getting tough on drones, the bill doesn’t address two rather obvious areas: use of the drones by the federal government and by private individuals or groups.

On Tuesday, Jennings Depriest, a freshman at Florida State University and a member of the FSU College Libertarians, expressed his dismay that the federal government was exempted from the bill.

“How can we say that it’s wrong for our state and local law enforcement to use drones to spy on its law abiding citizens without warrant while allowing the federal government an exception to the rule of law?” Depriest said. “The Libertarian base is on fire. We saw it last week with Sen. Rand. We will continue to see it.”

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said he’s concerned about the private use of drones.

“I can see private investigators and the Tampa Bay Times, you name it, to having access to drones,” Gardiner said. (The Tampa Bay Times does not own, nor has it ever used, drones.)

Negron said he wanted to narrow the focus of the bill to law enforcement but was open to target private use in the future.

Also, law enforcement’s use of drones now is so restricted that the bill doesn’t affect the Miami-Dade Police Department, said Lt. Aviel Sanchez.

In the two years that it has had permission to use a drone, it did so only once for a hostage situation that cleared up by the time the drone could take off. It took that long to get permission from the FAA, Sanchez said. FAA rules already prohibit the department from flying the drones at night, near high rises or crowded areas.

“Our concern with this bill is that this could make departments hesitate to use this tool,” Sanchez said. “It could make departments second guess using them.”

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