SACRAMENTO, Calif. (May 17, 2015) – A California bill that would drastically restrict the use of drones by state and local law enforcement and serve to thwart one aspect of the federal surveillance state passed its third and final Assembly committee last week.
Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) introduced Assembly Bill 56 (AB56) in January. The legislation would place strict regulations on law enforcement use of drones, and prohibit drone surveillance of private property without a warrant in most situations.
Generally, California law enforcement would have to meet a several criteria before deploying drones, including “ensuring protections against unreasonable searches guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the California Constitution.” Law enforcement would also have to comply with all state laws governing the use of any surveillance technology attached to drones.
The bill also creates and environment and transparency around the use of unmanned aircraft. Under the proposed law, law enforcement agencies must get approval from its local legislative body, and that body must provide an opportunity for public comment before implementing a drone program.
AB56 places even tighter restrictions on the use of drones over private property. A law enforcement agency would have to obtain a warrant before deploying a drone unless there exists exigent circumstances such as emergency situations with imminent threat to life or of great bodily harm and natural disasters. Law enforcement would also be allowed to operate a drone over private property with the owner’s express permission.
Last Wednesday, AB56 unanimously passed the Committee on Appropriations 17-0. The bill previously passed the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection 9-1 and the Public Safety Committee 5-0. The legislation now moves on to the full House for further consideration.
Impact on the Federal Surveillance State
Although AB56 focuses exclusively on state and local drone use and does not apply directly federal agencies, the legislation would throw a high hurdle in front of some federal programs.
Much of the funding for drones at the state and local level comes from the federal government, in and of itself a constitutional violation. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.
According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.
The federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the sate and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.
Bills like AB56 make part of a bigger strategy to put and end to government drone surveillance. Virginia led the way with its 2013 moratorium and appears set to take the next step. Each bill introduced, passed, and signed into law creates and builds momentum for other states to do the same.