A bill designed to allow law enforcement to use remotely piloted aircraft in investigations passed its third House committee (Judiciary) Thursday afternoon.
The bill is ready for the House floor, though the Senate companion still has two committee stops.
HB 75 allows law enforcement to use drones to survey traffic accidents, to collect evidence at a crime scene, and to assist in crowd control.
“Crowd control” was the sticking point for the panel during debate.
Bill sponsor state Rep. Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican in his second term, noted that a crowd is a group of more than 50 people, “not a house party.”
That phrasing was not universally reassuring, however.
Some concern in the committee was expressed about a potential semantic slippery slope, where “crowd control” becomes shooting rubber bullets or tear gas.
“It’s a nebulous term,” Democratic Rep. Mike Gottlieb said.
“Control is a strong word, I agree,” Yarborough said. “Whatever is legally permissible today with a helicopter … not surveillance or anything like that.”
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, though supportive of the bill, pressed for a distance limitation between the drone and the crowd.
“The unintended consequence could be to chill free speech,” noted the Tampa Democrat.
This particular bill is closely watched by the ACLU and other privacy advocates, yet is backed by law enforcement interests and the Florida League of Cities.
ACLU Legislative director Kara Gross expressed “grave concerns” regarding “unfettered discretion” for crowd control overreach and warrantless “discretionary mass surveillance.”
“When you look at a drone … the only way it can control the crowd is through some mechanisms on it,” Gross said.
Gross suggested changing the phrase “crowd control” to sound somewhat less threatening.
Regarding the evidence collection piece of the bill, Gross said that amounted to a warrantless search.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen … what’s going to be on them … what new technologies are going to be created,” Gross said regarding the potential of using drones equipped with facial recognition software.
“I don’t know what’s capable of happening in the future,” Gross said, but recorded data potentially could be stored “forever on some database somewhere.”
Rep. Jamie Grant dismissed ACLU concerns, saying they were “counterproductive” and “rooted in a fear of what might happen.”
Gross also contended drones could be used to ascertain that drugs or other contraband are in a house, “without proving there is anything.”
“Send in a drone, and they can go inside a garage,” Gross added.
Civil liberties concerns would not carry the day.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, a Tallahassee Democrat, suggested that monitoring would merely “expose bad actors.”
Rep. Joseph Geller, a Dania Beach Democrat, likewise was “satisfied” that potential overreach “would not occur.”
“I think we’re all on the same page here,” Geller added.
In closing, Yarborough invoked Florida Statute 934.50 and its explicit statutory protection against fears of unwarranted surveillance.