ORLANDO, Fla. — It used to be illegal for Florida law enforcement to use drones with intent to surveil crowds or gather evidence.

This is no longer the case.

What You Need To Know

  • A new Florida law expands the use of drones for law enforcement and other first responders

  • Civil liberty advocates are concerned about how drones would be used to surveil rallies and marches 

  • The controversy is related to HB 1, informally called the 'anti-riot' bill, which DeSantis backed

On June 29, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 44 into law, expanding law enforcement agencies’ authorized use of drones.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Tom Wright, said the inexpensive technology will make fighting crime easier while saving resources and lives.

"If this can reduce high-speed chases and still fight crime, if it could save lives, then that's worth it right there,” said Wright, whose district spans parts of Volusia and Brevard counties.

But although the new law passed 40-0 in the Florida Senate, it’s drawing public criticism.

Under the previous 2013 state law, law enforcement could not legally use a drone in Florida to conduct surveillance on an individual or property “in violation of such person’s reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent.” Any cases of search or investigation with a drone needed to come with a search warrant or be deemed terrorist or “imminent danger to life” situations. 

The 2021 legislation deleted those warrant requirements, opening the door for drones to be used by law enforcement agencies to get an "aerial perspective of a crowd of 50 people or more,” gather evidence from crime and traffic crash scenes, assist with traffic management and more.

The new law also expands the use of drones for firefighters, rangers and other first responders. In cases of natural disasters, the technology could provide a vantage point to assess damage and search for survivors. For vegetation and wildlife, it could help in surveying public land and water to mitigate threats of wildfires and floods.

According to the bill, what the new law will not allow is the issuing of traffic citations based on images or videos captured by drones. It should also not allow for infringement of Amendment 4 Constitutional privacy rights — something critics have said is anything but guaranteed.

Privacy concerns for demonstrators

Although several committees amended the law to require some restrictions to protect individuals' rights, ACLU of Florida Political Director Kirk Bailey said the language in the bill is so broad, it could lead to a patchwork of policies.

"(People) can be monitored by this technology, and it’s really unclear both the extent of the monitoring or what the information gathered will be used for," he said.

Bailey said the new law raises a specter of serious liberty and privacy concerns, especially when it comes to gatherings and marches.

“I think you would have second thoughts about whether or not you’re going to go to that rally,” he said. “And I think it becomes even more intense when you’re talking about marginal or at-risk communities.”

Bailey’s critiques are not a new notion. In 2020, Republican Sen. Joe Gruters (District 23) of Sarasota proposed similar legislation to expand the use of drones, but his Senate Bill 520 didn’t fly. The bill mainly failed to take off due to bipartisan concerns over potential unreasonable searches and seizures.

But that was before the murder of George Floyd last summer, and the nationwide protests over race and policing in the months that followed.

For the 2021 legislative session, representatives and senators in Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature showed up with several bills inspired by those demonstrations. Making national headlines was House Bill 1, "Combating Public Disorder," which became widely called the "anti-riot" bill.

"If you look at the breadth of this particular piece of legislation, it is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country — there's just nothing even close," DeSantis said when signing the controversial piece into law.

Critics of the bill say it’s at odds with the Republican Party’s philosophy of small government.

“It’s an ideology of convenience — they say one thing and practice something else,” Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando said. “The use of drones without protections for privacy concerns is not a partisan issue, but unfortunately, Tallahassee really hasn’t been the place for much dialogue these days.”

Wright says it’s a matter of law and order.

“I don't think the Republican Party is doing anything that makes us different than what we were — or what we are,” Wright said. “Law enforcement was feeling hampered by these protests. These weren't peaceful protests, they were riots, and we need to give them the tools that will help them bring that to an end.”

The Volusia County senator also said no one will be spying on citizens, and that there will be no gathering of evidence under unconstitutional grounds.

“It can specifically not be used for just general surveillance; there has to be a specific reason,” Wright said. “No, we can’t just send a drone out to the neighborhood to see who's smoking grass today. It's like forgetting to tell you your rights when you’re being arrested: Anything you say would be inadmissible because it wasn't properly received.”

Deputies 'can make better decisions'

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said he’s excited for the invaluable data these flying gizmos could mean for his department.

His agency currently holds a fleet of 20 drones, which he said are the best way to serve public safety in these modern times. Chitwood said his force is planning to get more.

“I would like to see us get to the point in Volusia County where every supervisor has a drone mounted on their car,” Chitwood said. “The more information in the hands of the deputies, they can make better decisions.”

Some activists and attorneys, however, caution that technology — when it comes to personal freedoms and information, and when allowed to go unchecked — does not always work for the benefit of the people.

Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group, says the criminal justice system has failed too many, and public fears of the misuse and abuse of police power and technology privileges are warranted.

“There’s an important distinction to be made between firefighters using drones for rescue and police officers using drones for investigation,” he said. “The problem with law enforcement using them in emergency situations like a natural disaster is that we’ve learned from history that when you give police the ability to use technology in extenuating circumstances, those emergency circumstance parameters tend to grow and grow in authority and scope.”

In the end, Guariglia said it’s all about trust.

“The important thing to note is, this is not an either/or situation,” he said. “You don't have to choose between privacy and civil liberties, or security. What we can do is build trust between government and people, and when you have trust, the need for surveillance goes away. You can have both civil liberties and security when security is a collaboration effort.”

To view your local police department’s technology arsenal, you can visit the EFF’s open-source project Atlas of Surveillance, a database mapping tech used by law enforcement agencies around the country.