California latest state to tackle thorny issue of drones, privacy and law enforcement

As technology and demand have made unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – commonly called drones – cheaper and more accessible, concerns about their use by law enforcement have grown. In an attempt to balance public safety with privacy rights, the California legislature recently passed AB 1327, making it the most recent state to tackle the issue.

A recent Slate article penned by law professor Margot Kaminski explains and endorses the new legilsation:

“The California Legislature has taken the pulse of its citizens and decided to regulate law enforcement drone use. Otherwise, police use of drones for aerial surveillance will operate in an unchecked legal gray zone. Bill AB 1327 requires law enforcement drone-users to get a warrant. A warrant requirement does not prevent law enforcement from using drones, which are cheap and useful technology; it checks the scope of drone surveillance by involving legal standards and a judge.”

Prof. Kaminski was one of 41 law professors from across the nation to sign on to a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown urging him to sign AB 1327. The letter posits that state legislatures are the right place to address the issue.

“Legislatures are well-positioned to fine-tune the law to new technologies. They can provide clarity with respect to complicated and rapidly changing circumstances, and fulfill our responsibility to adapt our laws to changing technology in order to defend against threats to rights and privacy.”

In 2013, CSG’s Suggested State Legislation volume included Florida’s Senate Bill 92, the first state law that limits how state police can use drones equipped with surveillance cameras and other monitoring equipment. Under SB 92, the only situations in which police will be allowed to use drones without a warrant is if there is an imminent risk to property or life, or if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declares a high risk of a terrorist attack. Senate Bill 92 was approved 39-0 by the Senate, and it passed through all its committees unanimously before being signed into law in the spring of 2013.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states have enacted laws that govern how law enforcement can use drones. All but one of those 14 states enable police to use a drone pursuant to a warrant, while Virginia has probibited the use of drones by law enforcement until July 1, 2015.  

Map by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Aug. 21, 2014