N.J. Assembly passes drone bill with warrant requirements
By Salvador Rizzo/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
on January 06, 2014 at 3:25 PM
TRENTON — The state Assembly approved a bill today that would require New Jersey law enforcement agencies to get a warrant each time they deploy a drone to investigate a crime.
The measure, sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, passed 74-1 without floor debate. It is nearly identical to a state Senate bill approved in June — but the Senate did not include a warrant requirement, instead saying the agency chief should approve each request to use a drone.
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are set to enter U.S. airspace in 2015 under a new federal law, and state lawmakers have introduced a series of competing bills to limit their use by New Jersey's police and fire departments.
The flying, remote-controlled drones have sparked concerns about privacy and safety because of their surveillance capabilities and their use by the federal government as deadly weapons abroad in the war against terrorism.
Supporters say the technology soon will revolutionize the way products are transported in the United States, and they add it can help law enforcement capture photos, videos, sounds and heat signatures, among other uses. Lobbyists predict drones will contribute tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy within a decade.
Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer), the sponsor in the lower house, said privacy concerns were key while lawmakers drafted the legislation. It would let state, county and local police and fire departments and offices of emergency management deploy the drones, with some restrictions.
"We have heard many concerns about the expanded use of drones invading personal privacy," Benson said in a statement. "We will not be impairing the ability of law enforcement and emergency services to use drones when they're definitely needed. We'll just be creating common sense guidelines."
Officials would be able to use the devices in criminal investigations and events that “substantially endanger the health, safety and property of the citizens of this state,” including high-risk and missing-person searches, fires and forest fires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, explosions, acts of terrorism and civil disorder.
The New Jersey Press Association says that although law enforcement agencies should be able to use drones, it opposes one provision in the bill that would restrict any video, audio and photographic data captured in emergencies from being released to the public.
"One need only look back as recently as Hurricane Sandy to see that information which can be obtained from the use of drones during a state emergency could provide the public with valuable information including, but not limited to, the magnitude of the event, the extent of the damage done, the location of safe areas within the state, and the like," said George H. White, executive director of the association, in a statement last week.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has endorsed the bill but says "any drone legislation should also include a public reporting requirement on the use of drones in our state." The bill working its way through Legislature (A4073/S2702) does not require any public reporting.
Except for emergencies and forest fires, a court would have to approve the drone’s use in each case by issuing a warrant. Departments would have to log each time they used a drone and for what purpose, and submit that information yearly along with maintenance reports to the state attorney general.
“Information or records of a verbal or video communication derived from the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle shall be strictly safeguarded and shall not be made available or disclosed to the public or any third party,” the bill reads.
Any data deemed irrelevant to a criminal investigation must be discarded after 14 days under the bill, also sponsored by incoming speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), Assemblywomen Marlene Caride (D-Bergen) and Annette Quijano (D-Union), and co-sponsored by Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R-Monmouth).
"Protecting personal privacy in this age of ever-expanding technology is important, but so is protecting the ability of law enforcement and emergency services to use technology that can be helpful in time of need," Prieto said in a statement. "This bill strikes the right balance."
Before the bill reaches Gov. Chris Christie's desk, the Assembly and Senate would have to strike a deal on whether to keep the warrant requirement.
State officials have said they have no plans to use drones yet; law enforcement agencies in other states and at the federal level have begun to deploy them around the country.
State Police spokesman Lt. Stephen Jones previously told The Star-Ledger that “any use of those type of technologies we would thoroughly vet through the Attorney General’s Office and look for guidance to make sure we’re on safe grounds regarding people’s rights and privacy.”