Lawmakers in California struck a major blow for the privacy of their constituents—advancing a bill aimed at imposing strict limits on the ability of law enforcement officials to monitor the state’s residents from above.
In a vote on Tuesday that crossed party lines, the California State Senate voted 25-8 to approve a bill that would prohibit warrantless drone surveillance from being conducted by law enforcement agencies in the state. The bill, which was first introduced in the California Assembly last year, also requires all materials obtained from drone surveillance, which now has to be done with a warrant, must be destroyed after a year—except in a handful of exceptional cases.
“The potential for abuse of drones is high,” Sen. Ted Lieu (D–Redondo Beach), the bill’s co-author, told Reuters. ‟We need to be vigilant to ensure our Constitutional rights are protected.”
The legislation does contain a number of significant exceptions. It only applies to law enforcement agencies, meaning that California’s Department of Parks and Recreation wouldn’t need to obtain a warrant before using a drone to take an aerial video of a state park, for example. It also doesn’t apply to emergencies like fires and hostage situations.
Despite the loophole for emergencies, the bill has been met with opposition from some law enforcement groups. “We don’t think you should have to go through a court process in order to deploy one of these things when it’s the same technology that’s on someone’s cellphone,” Aaron Maguire of the California State Sheriffs’ Association insisted to Capital Public Radio.
Maguire added that, because the drones would primarily take images of people while they were out in public, state legislators are wrong to assert that those individuals would have an expectation of privacy.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently prohibits the commercial use of drones. Government agencies are allowed to use the remote-controlled aircraft, but they have to receive permission from the agency to do so, on a case-by-case basis.
As drones quickly decrease in cost and increase in versatility, it seems inevitable that more and more law enforcement agencies will take advantage of the technology. In May, it was revealed that the Los Angeles Police Department had acquired a pair of small, helicopter-style Draganflyer X6 drones from the Seattle Police Department.
While the LAPD said at the time it wasn’t even sure that it was going to use the drones, which are currently being held by federal authorities, the simple fact that the department had them in the first place made a lot of civil libertarians uncomfortable. Last week, a group of protestors gathered in front of Los Angeles City Hall to call for the Mayor Eric Garcetti block the city’s police department from ever taking the drones out for a spin.
“What’s going to happen when they have a drone that you can’t ever hear is around, that can come into close radius?” protester Jamie Garcia told NBC. “What are they going to do with this data? They haven’t told us.”
The next step for the bill is returning to the state Assembly, where it was first introduced, for a vote on the amendments tacked on in the Senate. If it is successful there, the legislation will head to the desk of California Governor Jerry Brown.