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California Bill Would Ban Warrantless Drone Surveillance

Two California bills under consideration this year would restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) by government officials, banning their use in surveillance by law enforcement without a warrant based on probable cause.

Assembly Bill 37 (AB37) was filed by Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose), and Assembly Bill 56 (AB56) was authored by Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward). The bills are virtually identical outside of some technical differences that do not affect the privacy protections in the legislation.

Under these bills, government agencies are banned from using drones except in specific situations. Law enforcement agencies can only use drones for surveillance when they have obtained a warrant based upon probable cause. Those agencies could also use drones in non-spying situations, such as assistance for search and rescue missions, surveying environmental disasters like oil spills, and to inspect state parks and wilderness areas.

Such prohibitions would bring nearly all nefarious use of drones by government agencies to an end in California.

Other government agencies would be able to use drones for “to achieve the core mission of the agency provided that the purpose is unrelated to the gathering of criminal intelligence.”

Before using drones, these agencies would have to provide appropriate notice to the public, which would “at a minimum, consist of a one-time announcement regarding the agency’s intent to deploy unmanned aircraft system technology and a description of the technology’s capabilities.” And even that information would not be made available to law enforcement agencies without a warrant based upon probable cause.

“Images, footage, or data obtained through the use of an unmanned aircraft system” would be required to be “permanently destroyed within one year” with limited exceptions.

Although drone use would still be permitted in specific circumstances, these bills set a nearly-total prohibition on their use in areas of great concern, warrantless surveillance.

OffNow director Mike Maharrey noted that California is ready to join a growing chorus of states putting strict limits on drones. “Already, a number of states have passed similar bills into law, and we are expecting more in the coming weeks and months,” he said. “Legislators and the general public from left to right want to see a dangerous future stopped before it happens.”

Maharrey said that this kind of bill has significant ramifications at the federal level because Washington D.C. is pushing and funding drone use at the state level. He noted that the federal government serves as the primary engine behind the expansion of drone surveillance carried out by states and local communities. The Department of Homeland Security issues large grants to local governments so they can purchase drones. “Those grants, in and of themselves, represent an unconstitutional expansion of power.”

“The feds want to push these on the states, and if the states refuse, it’ll foil their plan,” he said. “They already spy on Americans so much that Rand Paul said it numbered in the ‘Gazillions’ after a secret meeting with intelligence officials. If the feds can get the states to start buying up and running drones over our cities, they’ll certainly want access to all that surveillance information in the future. It’s important that states begin drawing a line in the sand now – no aerial spying here.”

“If enough states pass bills like these, it’ll foil their plans before they ever take off.”

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