A U.S. congressman from Texas this week introduced a “Don’t mess with drones” bill that restricts both law enforcement and private use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called “drones,” over American airspace.
The unmanned eyes in the sky are already being used on a limited basis by some police and federal agencies, but current law permits expansion to commercial and private use of drones in 2015.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, however, has now introduced H.R. 6199, the Preserving American Privacy Act, in an attempt to limit what he believes is an invasion of Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights.
“When we see a drone in the air, it should be no surprise to us. Now is the time to start, not 2015,” Poe said last week. “With the increased technology of surveillance, Congress has to be proactive in limiting drone use to law enforcement and also protecting civilians from the private use of drones.”
Poe’s bill first prevents any federal agency from using a drone in the U.S. “except pursuant to warrant and in the investigation of a felony” and except for border security purposes already permissible by current law.
Second, the bill states that no “private person” – such as a private investigator, news agency or nosy neighbor – can surveil another individual without their consent or consent of the owner of the property being surveilled.
“The goal is to make sure than Americans’ right to privacy is protected by the Fourth Amendment,” Poe told WND, “and Congress has the obligation to ensure Fourth Amendment protection before the drones have taken over the skyways.”
Specifically, the Fourth Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
“We can’t leave it up to federal bureaucracies to make the decision as to where a drone flies or who has permission to fly one,” Poe told WND. “We can’t let government agencies determine when the Fourth Amendment should apply and when it shouldn’t. Congress has that responsibility.”
Some newspaper commentaries on the bill have suggested that requiring law enforcement agencies to acquire a warrant before using drones could hamper their investigations, but Poe told WND the bill makes exceptions for “legitimate” law enforcement uses.
“The bill requires law enforcement to follow the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, but there are exceptions to [requiring] a warrant. Chasing a bank robber, for example,” Poe said. “And it applies to surveillance only, when law enforcement is looking to prosecute someone for a crime. But all of the other situations, where you have emergency situations, fire and rescue, flying for floods and wildfires – all of those would still take place, because that’s an exception to [requiring] a warrant. It doesn’t apply to public safety issues.”
Poe’s bill asserts that the use of drones shall simply be “subject to the same limitations and exceptions as apply in the case of any other search.”
Poe also explained that he sought input from law enforcement officers on crafting the bill and said they were appreciative of the guidelines it provides.
“It won’t hamper law enforcement. It will let them know what they can and can’t do, so they’re not liable for making mistakes,” Poe told WND. “It protects the public, it protects the law enforcement officers, it will not hamper legitimate law enforcement uses at all – it will only prevent illegitimate law enforcement uses.”
Video of Poe introducing the bill on the floor of the House can be seen below:
Similar bills restricting government use of drones – but which do not address private use – were introduced in both Houses of Congress last month as the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012: known as H.R. 5925 in the House and introduced by Rep. Scott Austin, R-Ga., and S.3287 in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act of 2012 similarly restricts law enforcement use of drones without a warrant or in border patrol applications, but also makes exceptions to counter “high risk of a terrorist attack” or when “imminent danger to life” necessitates “swift action.”