Reassured that tea party activists and other government critics will not have their rallies spied on by police using aerial drones, the Florida Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill requiring search warrants for most law-enforcement use of the unmanned surveillance planes.
“It’s important, as technology develops, that we make certain we have protection of our right to privacy, our right to be left alone,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who sponsored the proposal. “I think this bill strikes a delicate balance between the needs of law enforcement officers and the citizen’s right to privacy.”
The bill was given second-reading approval and set for a floor vote next week in the Senate. A companion bill by state Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, is pending in the House.
Neither proposal has run into much opposition in committees. If the plan becomes law, police would have to get a search warrant before using a drone for surveillance, except when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asks for help with a terrorist threat, or when police need to act fast to search for a fugitive or a missing child.
Negron said police could not routinely use drones to scan big crowds when no “exigent circumstance” requires aerial observation.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, said some of his Panhandle constituents have expressed concern about being observed by Homeland Security at rallies of the tea party or other lawful assemblies.
Evers, a co-sponsor of the bill, asked Negron what would “constitute credible intelligence, as determined by the secretary of Homeland Security,” to justify using drones for aerial surveillance.
“This country was founded on people’s ability to air their differences with the government,” said Evers. “A lot of people are concerned with giving that much power to an unelected bureaucrat to use intelligence and determine what is a credible threat to security and what isn’t.”
Negron replied that “the Florida Legislature does not have the jurisdiction to determine what the federal government does.”