Will Florida State Lawmakers Allow Drone Legislation to Crash and Burn?
Around the State
“It’s not an anti-drone bill,” he told the House Federal and State Affairs Committee on Thursday. “It’s an anti-police state bill!”
Sound like a pinko dreadlocked hippie from Occupy Wall Street? Think again.
Workman, a Melbourne Republican, said his HB 119, the “Freedom from Unwanted Surveillance Act,” would make Florida the first state in the nation to pass such binding limits on government drones. It would require state and local law enforcement officials to obtain a search warrant before using unmanned aerial devices to gather evidence on unsuspecting citizens. It further provides for civil remedies, or legal recourse, against state and local governments if the new technology is abused.
Workman’s bill has a matching component in the Senate, SB 92, sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Both bills have broad bipartisan support thus far in the committee process, but watering down the actual language remains a real concern.
Workman acknowledged in his testimony that the Florida Police Chiefs Association is pushing to alter or strike the phrase “imminent danger” as it relates to gathering evidence without a warrant. The powerful police chiefs union says the language is too restrictive.
Another concern is the bill’s legal threshold for determining when a person of interest may fall within the scope of the warrantless exemptions. Reasonable suspicion, as it’s known, is a much lower standard than the typical probable cause element required for law enforcement agents to make an arrest.
HB 119 Search Warrant Exemption: “If a law enforcement agency has reasonable suspicion that under particular circumstances, swift action is necessary 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.”
Flanking the conservative Republican Workman at the committee was Ron Bilbao, lobbyist for the Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. While expressing unambiguous support for drone restrictions, Bilbao maintained the bill language doesn’t go far enough.
“There is lots of potential for abuse,” said Bilbao, who specifically opposed broadening the exigent circumstances clause desired by the FPCA. Instead, he recommended tightening the potential loophole.
Rep. Jimmie T. Smith,R- Inverness, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, went much further. For him, the subject of drones is a Fifth Amendment concern, not just a Fourth Amendment search and seizure issue. Referring to the idea that unsuspecting innocents could be recorded from thousands of feet above, Smith spoke carefully of “Big Brother,” “revolution,” and an overarching “fear of government.” Smith also stated that he was glad he could finally agree with the ACLU.
One lawmaker asked why they’ve waited this long to address drones. The answer: technology has moved, and perhaps always will move, faster than regulators. Still, state governments are well ahead of the federal government. The Federal Aviation Administration will set the federal guidelines, but not until 2015.
When Negron’s SB 92 was up for debate last month, several lawmakers who voted in favor of moving the bill on to the Judiciary Committee also signaled removing the bill’s teeth.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, expressed concern for the civil remedies clause, saying it would open law enforcement agencies to frivolous lawsuits. Similarly, Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, requested wide latitude for amendments, and claimed, “When you’re in public, you don’t have the same expectation of privacy as in your home.”
In his closing statement, Workman admonished law enforcement officials, “Don’t game the system!”
But if the bill fails, constitutional advocates across the political spectrum just may be saying the same thing to state legislators.
Contact William Patrick at William@FloridaWatchdog.org