Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, scored his first 2013 legislative victory Tuesday morning when his proposed legislation restricting the use of drones by state and local law enforcement agencies was approved by a unanimous vote of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
SB 92, the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, as originally filed would have prohibited the use of unmanned aerial vehicles more popularly known as drones by law enforcement agencies to gather evidence or other information about citizens. An exception was provided for cases where the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security determines that credible intelligence indicates the existence of a terrorist threat.
Evidence obtained in violation of the statute would be inadmissible in court, and the bill also provides civil remedies for citizens whose rights are infringed upon by those violations.
Civil rights proponents have expressed concerns that the employment of drones by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies has the potential to infringe on citizens privacy. Negron, one of the Legislature's staunchest civil-liberties defenders, told reporters SB 92 is a top priority for him this session.
The bill has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Florida Public Defenders Association, but is being opposed or at least approached coolly by the Florida Sheriff's Association (FSA) and the Florida Police Chiefs Association (FPCA).
The bill approved Tuesday had been amended by Negron in three respects. First, some wording was added to make it explicit that drones may not be used for the purposes of local government code enforcement. In addition, Negron added two more exceptions that would justify drone usage: a) when a law enforcement agency obtains a search warrant signed by a judge, and b) an "exigent circumstances" provision, where "swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence."
The amended bill received the approval of each of the seven members of the committee, including its two Democrats: vice chair and Minority Leader Chris Smith of Oakland Park and Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville.
Representatives from police associations signaled their appreciation for Sen. Negrons amendments, but stopped short of offering their support for SB 92.
As originally drafted, there were some concerns that the Florida Sheriffs Association had concerning tactical use and lifesaving measures, and we look forward to working with [Senator Negron] and other committee members, Keri Rayborn Silver, a lobbyist for the FSA, told the panel.
Attorney Timothy Stanfield echoed those sentiments on behalf of the FPCA: Initially our client was a little concerned with the bill as filed, but Senator Negrons amendments go a long way in ameliorating some of our concerns and we look forward to working with him.
These issues are about boundaries and there is a line to be drawn, Negron told reporters after the vote. You have to draw the line somewhere, and where I draw the line is having these unmanned drones hovering in the sky. You could potentially visualize hundreds of these in the air over Florida at any given moment, just surveilling the lawful acts of Floridians. That goes too far.
Negron said he was optimistic of his bills prospects, saying that both Democrats and Republicans have signaled their support of it, both in Florida and in the dozen or so other states where lawmakers of both parties have introduced similar legislation.
Negron suggested that the exceptions written into the bill are so narrowly tailored that the cost-ineffectiveness of the drones might prevent many agenices from employing them at all.
"I would anticipate very minimal uses for drones, and it may end up being that because the uses are so limited, it's not practical to have one," Negron said. "That's a law-enforcement decision."
Negron estimated that about a half-dozen jurisdictions in the Sunshine State are experimenting with drones.
In order to move to the Senate floor for a vote, SB 92 must pass through three more committees: Judiciary, Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, and Appropriations. A companion bill has been filed in the House by Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne.
Approval of SB 92 was followed in the committee by a debate over whether nonviolent criminals should be placed in privately run, but taxpayer-subsidized, institutions for substance abuse and mental health treatment.
Barney Bishop, president of the nonpartisan Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said such a move would help the state cut costs and would help keep felons from returning to a life of crime. He suggested empty prison facilities in Baker, Gadsden, and Miami-Dade counties be given to private operators to provide treatment.
"[Ex-convicts] are simply going through the proverbial revolving door, back to prison, and costing us taxpayers more money," Bishop told the panel. "We give them $50 and a bus ticket and expect them to overcome the addiction and become productive, law-abiding citizens.
Doug Martin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), insisted that private corporations were not the appropriate providers of such services.
"When people have to be compensated [for wrongdoing by these private companies], that liability rests with the state," Martin said. "The state is not able to put that liability off to private providers."
The committee did not consider any bill on the matter.
Reach Eric Giunta at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (954) 235-9116.