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California Senate Bans Warrantless Drone Surveillance

UPDATE 08-28-14, The Assembly concurred with the Senate version of the bill and it will now go to Gov. Brown’s desk for a signature.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A bill that would drastically restrict the use of drones by law enforcement in California passed the Senate and now heads back to the Assembly for concurrence on amendments before moving on to the governor’s desk for a signature.

AB1327 requires law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before it can operate a drone, with a few exceptions.

The bill passed the Assembly 63-6 back in January, and cleared the Senate with some amendments by a 26-8 vote on Tuesday.

AB1327 includes exceptions to the warrant requirement to for emergency situations. The legislation spells out such situations to include “fires, hostage crises, and hot pursuit situations if reasonably necessary to prevent harm to law enforcement officers or others, and search and rescue operations on land or water.” The Senate also added an exception allowing the use of a drone “to determine the appropriate response to an imminent or existing environmental emergency or disaster.”

The bill does allow non-law enforcement agencies to “use an unmanned aircraft system, or contract for the use of an unmanned aircraft system, to achieve the core mission of the agency provided that the purpose is unrelated to the gathering of criminal intelligence.” The Senate added an amendment to allow non-law enforcement public agencies that employ peace officers to use drones without a warrant as long as “the images, footage, or data are not used for any purpose other than that for which it was collected.”

The legislation sets strict standards governing the use of a drone and for the handling of data collected when authorized.  It would ban the weaponization of drones in California, and evidence obtained in violation of the act would be inadmissible as evidence in administrative or judicial proceedings in the state. Local governments would be authorized to implement additional restrictions beyond the state standards set by the bill.

The Assembly version required the destruction of all data within six months. The Senate version extends the time period to one year and makes exceptions for training; academic research or teaching; monitoring material assets owned by the agency; or environmental, public works, or  land use management or planning, and if information was collected as evidence in an enforcement proceeding.

While some of the amendments might allow more wiggle room for drone use and data retention than ideal, it certainly represents a vast improvement over the status quo – no limits on law enforcement use of drones in California at all.

We know that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses grant money to get drones in the hands of local law enforcement. DHS and other federal agencies will never need to fly a single drone if they can just get all of the states doing it for them. Once in the air, the feds will simply point to information-sharing provisions of the PATRIOT Act or other federal acts and have a network of spies everywhere.

The Assembly will now consider the Senate version. If it concurs with the amendment, the bill will move on to Gov. Brown’s desk. If not, it will go to a conference committee for reconciliation.

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