Florida ban on drones advances despite law-enforcement objections

Police want lawmakers to make an exception for crowd control in a bill that bans the use of drones for law and code enforcement, but the measure won committee approval Wednesday without that change.

The request prompted the bill's sponsor to ask what if King George had sent a drone to the Boston Tea Party.

The Community Affairs Committee unanimously approved the bill (SB 92) to ban drones with exceptions for certain emergencies, suspected terrorism and surveillance that's been approved by a judge.

"What we're talking about here is Big Brother and the idea that Big Brother is watching," said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

Thompson is among several committee members who urged Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican sponsoring the bill, to consider loosening some of its restrictions although they voted for the measure.

"We have a responsibility to protect people's liberty, but I think we have also a responsibility to protect people's lives," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Negron, though, said he would vote against his own bill if a crowd control exception is added.

"We know something about crowds," Negron said. "We had a crowd back in the 1700s. It was called the Boston Tea Party. Can you imagine if King George had sent a drone to hover over the Boston Tea Party to see what the American patriots were up to?"

Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Michael Fewless told the committee that taxpayers would save money if law enforcement could use drones instead of helicopters for crowd control at football games and other events where thousands of people converge.

"They have no firearms on them," Fewless said. "We can't blow people up. The only thing we can do is take a picture."

Negron wants to restrict drones to protect people's privacy rights, but Fewless said there's no reasonable expectation of privacy at public events.

"We do not want to use the drone to fly over people's houses, seeing what they're doing in their backyards," he said. "What we are looking for is large scale events."

Fewless also said he was worried that restrictions on drones could lead to similar limits on helicopters, but Negron disagreed. He said people can see and hear helicopters unlike the much smaller and quieter drones.

"Helicopters yes, drones no, because we have to draw lines," Negron said. "That is what legislating is all about."

Latvala said he was more concerned about such uses as spotting marijuana growing areas than about crowd control.

The bill already would permit that as long as authorities obtain search warrants from judges, Negron said.

It also allows drone searches for escaped fugitives and for emergencies such as an imminent threat to life or property. That includes fires, missing children and kidnappings.

Fewless said the Orange County Sheriff's Office would support the bill if it had a crowd control exception.

Keri Silver, a lobbyist for the Florida Sheriffs Association, said her organization no longer oppose the bill with such a provision but still wouldn't endorse it. She said it isn't necessary at this time.

Only a few Florida law enforcement agencies currently have drones, but Negron said the technology is expanding rapidly and he wants to get a law passed now. Florida is one of at least 11 states considering limits on drone use.

Florida Police Chiefs Association lawyer Tim Stanfield said his organization wants changes in the emergency situation language to give its members more comfort.

American Civil Liberties Union of Florida lobbyist Ron Bilbao said the ACLU supports the bill he advocated a more restrictive emergency provision.

The bill must get through three more committees before it can get a floor vote. A similar House bill (HB 119) is scheduled for its first committee hearing Thursday.