TRENTON, N.J. (Jan. 12, 2016) – On Monday, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill that would significantly limit drone surveillance in the state, and also serve to thwart one aspect of the federal surveillance state. The bill now moves on to the governor’s desk for his signature.
Representatives Daniel Benson, Vincent Prieto, Marlene Caride and Annette Quijano, along with three cosponsors, introduced Assembly Bill 1039 (A1039) last year. The bill requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before conducting drone surveillance in most cases. It also includes an outright prohibition on the use of weaponized drones.
A1039 cleared the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee unanimously last week and the full Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure 35-3 on Monday. The House passed the bill 66-2 last spring. The legislation now heads over to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk. He will have 45 days from the date he receives the bill to sign or veto it. If he takes no action, it will automatically become law.
The legislation allows for a few exceptions to the warrant requirement. Police could deploy a drone if they have probable cause to believe that a person has committed a crime and exigent circumstances exist preventing them from obtaining a warrant. Significantly, the bill requires “probable cause,” not the lower legal standard “reasonable suspicion.” A1039 also allows warrantless drone use in a search for a missing person, or if a property owner provides written consent.
The bill includes provisions to prevent mass data storage, requiring destruction of information not relevant to the investigation outlined in the warrant.
“Whenever a law enforcement agency utilizes an unmanned aerial vehicle in accordance with subsection b. of this section and records a verbal or video communication that is unrelated to an ongoing criminal investigation, the contents of that verbal or video communication, and any information that is derived from that communication, shall be discarded within 14 days.”
Any information collected in violation of the law could 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.”
Finally, the legislation also stipulates record keeping requirements for agencies deploying drones.
Impact on the Federal Surveillance State
Although A1039 focuses exclusively on state and local drone use and does not apply directly federal agencies, the legislation would throw a high hurdle in front of some federal programs.
Much of the funding for drones at the state and local level comes from the federal government, in and of itself a constitutional violation. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.
According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.
The federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the sate and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.
Bills like A1039 make part of a bigger strategy to put an end to government drone surveillance. Virginia led the way with its 2013 moratorium recently took the next step implementing permanent limits on drone surveillance. Each bill introduced, passed, and signed into law creates and builds momentum for other states to do the same.