The state Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill requiring warrants to use drones for surveillance.
The Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act prohibits the use of drones for surveillance except in limited circumstances.
“All we’re doing is bringing the law to catch up with the new technology,” said Sen. Mae Beavers, the bill’s sponsor. “The Federal Aviation Administration predicts 10,000 commercial drones could be in the skies by 2020. As this number increases, it is very important that they are operated responsibly and consistently, as well as in accordance with our Fourth Amendment Rights.”
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause.
Drones, unmanned aerial vehicles that can be equipped with weapons or surveillance equipment, were used for years by the Department of Defense in military applications. A bill passed March 6 in the U.S. House would require the Department of Defense to reveal any military drones used domestically to conduct surveillance on American citizens.
But drone use is not limited to the military.
In 2012, 81 organizations – including military branches, law enforcement agencies, colleges and universities – applied for drone licensure from the FAA, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Among those organizations were Middle Tennessee State University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“In the process of all this, I found out that Metro Nashville owns two and Memphis has one,” said Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet.
The bill requires law enforcement get search warrants before using drones to get evidence through surveillance.
“We just want to make sure they’re not used to spy on people without the police first having to obtain a warrant,” said Beavers.
Any evidence gathered without a warrant would not be admissible in court, and anyone falling prey to unwarranted surveillance by a drone would be eligible to file a lawsuit under the proposed bill. The measure also requires data would be private and deleted no later than 24 hours after acquisition.
The two notable exceptions when a warrant would not be required is when there is specific and credible threat of a terrorist attack or if law enforcement has reason to believe there’s imminent danger to life.
Beavers said the bill is modeled after a recently passed Florida law. Eleven states have filed or passed similar legislation.