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Friday, May 15, 2015

New Florida Law Restricting Private Drone Use

Florida's governor recently signed S.B. 766, a bill that expands and clarifies restrictions on drone use listed in section 934.50, Florida Statutes. The full text of the bill is available here. Reports on the passage of the bill are available here, here, and here

Prior to the passage of this bill, section 934.50 contained a wide restriction on government drone use. 934.50 prohibited the use of drones by law enforcement agencies to collect evidence except in cases where a warrant was first obtained, there was a high risk of a terrorist attack, or there was a risk of imminent harm to somebody. Those exceptions still exist after the passage of S.B. 766.

S.B. 766 is notable because of the restrictions it places on private drone use. The bill adds subsection 934.50(3)(b), which states:

(b) A person, a state agency, or a political subdivision as defined in s. 11.45 may not use a drone equipped with an imaging device to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image in violation of such person’s reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent. For purposes of this section, a person is presumed to have a reasonable expectation of privacy on his or her privately owned real property if he or she is not observable by persons located at ground level in a place where they have a legal right to be, regardless of whether he or she is observable from the air with the use of a drone.
The scope of this restriction is clarified by the new subsection 934.40(2)(e), which defines "surveillance" as:

1. With respect to an owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of privately owned real property, the observation of such persons with sufficient visual clarity to be able to obtain information about their identity, habits, conduct, movements, or whereabouts; or

2. With respect to privately owned real property, the observation of such property’s physical improvements with sufficient visual clarity to be able to determine unique identifying features or its occupancy by one or more persons.
A person using a drone violates this law if he or she uses a drone to collect images that are clear enough to identify unique identifying features about a piece of property or people on that property. The incidental collection of such images by a drone that is used for different purposes would not appear to violate the restrictions on private drone use. Additionally, this law does not apply to property that is not fenced-in or vast, since features of this property would likely be observable by somebody on the ground, meaning that the property owner would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The law does not criminalize the use of drones for this sort of surveillance, but it does contain a provision permitting civil lawsuits for those who are subject to drone surveillance that violates the provisions of section 934.50. The prevailing party in such a lawsuit would have the right to obtain attorney's fees, and a person subject to surveillance in violation of this law would have the right to seek punitive damages and/or injunctive relief.

The new provisions in S.B. 766 seem fairly reasonable to me. By requiring an intent to conduct a surveillance and a violation of a reasonable expectation of privacy, Florida's new law permits quite a bit of drone use -- even use that may incidentally capture images of private property. Additionally, the bill does not criminalize private drone use that violates the law's provisions, and instead only provides a civil remedy.

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