Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs drones bill into law

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauApril 25, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Look up in the sky, Florida, it’s okay. The odds of getting caught on a state or local government-operated camera just went down.

On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law limiting how police can use unmanned drones for surveillance.

“This is something all Floridians should be proud of,” Scott said. “We shouldn’t have unreasonable surveillance of ourselves.”

The legislation taps into national anxieties that span across all political ideologies, from tea party libertarians who want a reduced role of government in their private lives to left-leaning groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who are concerned about law enforcement overreach and the due process of law.

The appeal of SB 92, which was sponsored by the Senate’s powerful appropriations chair, Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart, was unanimous among lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats. It didn’t receive one ’nay’ vote, nor did the House companion bill sponsored by Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne. Both flanked Scott as he signed the bill into law.

“It’s important that, as American citizens, we respect the role of law enforcement,” Negron said. “But we just don’t want a general practice of drones hovering in the sky monitoring the activities of lawful Floridians.”

The new law bans local law enforcement officials from using drones without a warrant or threat of a terrorist attack and prohibits the use of information collected by drones to be used as evidence in courts. It has several exemptions, however, including if the federal government determines there’s a credible threat of a terrorist strike. It also doesn’t address the use of the cameras by the federal government, which cannot be regulated by state lawmakers, or private users, which can be, but haven’t yet.

In Florida, drone use is hardly a pressing problem. Only three Florida law enforcement agencies (Miami-Dade Police Department and Orange and Polk counties sheriff’s offices) have authorization to use drones — to observe, not to shoot — and none of them have used drones in a real-life situation.

But Negron and Workman say technology has improved so much that drones are cheaper now, and a commercial boom is looming.

“There’s an industry that wants to sell hundreds and thousands of these drones all over the country, and before they’re up in the sky, I thought it was a good idea to say, here are the rules in Florida,” Negron said.

In an era where fears of loss of privacy are rivaled only by those of terrorism, the legislation was a case study of balancing competing interests and capturing wide appeal.

Asked what he liked about the bill Thursday, Scott had a simple response.

“I like privacy,” he said.

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