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New Jersey Committee Passes Bill to Restrict Government Drones

TRENTON, NJ – October 26, 2014 – A bill in the New Jersey General Assembly that would put strong restrictions on government use of drones for surveillance without a warrant passed an important committee today by a vote of 4-0.

Assembly Bill 1039 (A1039), by primary sponsors Assemblymembers Daniel R. Benson (D-Hamilton Square), Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus), Marlene Caride (D-Ridgefield) and Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth), would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant to use a drone for surveillance. Assemblyman Declan J. O’Scanlon, Jr. (R-Red Bank) is also a cosponsor.

The legislation does include some narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement to allay the fears of law enforcement officials who did not want to be hamstrung in emergency situations when a drone’s use might spell life or death. The legislation spells out such situations to include “probable cause that a person has committed a crime, is committing a crime, or is about to commit a crime,” the “written consent of an individual or property owner about which the law enforcement agency seeks to gather information using the unmanned aerial vehicle,” or “the unmanned aerial vehicle is being utilized by the Missing Persons Unit…or other law enforcement agency for a search and rescue mission…or following a notification that a person is abducted or missing by an Amber Alert or Silver Alert…or by the State Office of Emergency Management to survey or monitor the extent of an emergency.”

The bill also requires that any information obtained through the use of a drone shall be discarded within 14 days, shall not be shared with the public or a third party and that “[a]ny evidence derived from the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle in violation of this section shall not be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution or disclosed in any other judicial proceeding, administrative proceeding, arbitration proceeding, or legislative proceeding, and may not be used to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause that an offense has been, is being, or is about to be committed.”

Forest firefighter services and county or municipal emergency management agencies would be permitted the use of drones to survey or monitor the extent of an emergency. All drones are forbidden from carrying “antipersonnel weaponry” of any kind.

Should the bill pass into law, any agency using drones must also list maintenance and fuel purchase records and maintain a log of all uses of the drone, including the purposes for which it was deployed.

The ACLU has weighed in on the issue on a national level, warning that “unregulated drone use could pose serious threats to our privacy.”

Reports suggest that American skies could be filled with drones starting in 2015, with some saying that as many as 30,000 could be flying without restriction. Some privacy advocates take the position that this is just the beginning, pointing to the fact that one of the primary engines behind state and local adoption of drones is the federal government.

“We know that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is using grant money to get drones in the hands of local law enforcement,” said Michael Maharrey, executive director of the OffNow Project. “DHS and other federal agencies will never need to fly a single drone if they can just get all the states doing it for them. Once they’re in the air, they’ll simply point to information-sharing provisions of the PATRIOT Act or other federal acts and have a network of spies everywhere,” he continued. “By passing state laws to restrict drone use, we can stop this nightmare before it ever takes off.”

In recent years, a number of states have passed laws restricting drone use, including Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia.

A1039 now moves to the full state assembly for debate and potential vote on the bill.  Should it pass, the process will be repeated on the state senate side before going to the Governor’s desk for a signature.

Although a similar bill passed with overwhelming support in the end of the last legislative session, Governor Christie pocket vetoed the measure. This bill needs to pass early enough to deny the governor that option, so there is a chance to override the veto if necessary.

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