Lawmakers Advance Bill Setting Drone Use Guidelines For Law Enforcement

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TRENTON – The state Senate Law and Public Safety Committee advanced proposed legislation sponsored by Senators Nicholas J. Sacco and Nicholas P. Scutari that would set forth specific guidelines to be followed by law enforcement agencies when employing unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, for surveillance purposes on Monday.

“Over the past several years, the drone industry has grown rapidly and is expected to double in the next decade. Before that happens, we need to institute strict safeguards to protect the privacy of all New Jersey residents,” said Sacco, D-Hudson/Bergen. “Although drones offer a great solution to overcome cost and manpower shortages, this technology cannot be used without limitations. The safety of our residents must always come first.”

Under provisions of this bill, S2702, law enforcement agencies would be prohibited from using a drone unless there were reasonable grounds to believe that information that may be derived from an unmanned aerial vehicle would be relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The bill would permit the Missing Persons Unit to utilize a drone for search and rescue missions, including but not limited to, locating high risk missing person or child or following a notification that a person is abducted or missing by an Amber Alert or Silver Alert. The bill would also allow forest fire services to use drones to survey or monitor a forest fire, and for any fire department to use them to monitor the extent of a fire in situations when the drones can assist firefighters in obtaining information on the damage caused to a building or structure.

“For law enforcement agencies responding to fires or in search and rescue missions, these devices can be an effective way to survey large areas in a short amount of time. But these benefits cannot overshadow the need to properly maintain these devices and to protect any acquired information,” said Scutari, D-Union/Middlesex. “This legislation is about preventing abuses of this technology, while allowing for its useful application when necessary.”

The bill includes documentation requirements that would call upon law enforcement agencies or fire departments to submit proof of annual inspection, maintenance records, and a statement of facts recording the purpose, usage, and surveillance results for each drone.

Privacy measures in the bill ensure that information derived from the use of a drone would be strictly safeguarded from the public or any third party, any records unrelated to the ongoing criminal investigation would be required to be discarded within 14 days, and any evidence obtained illegally through these devices would be forbidden from being used as evidence in a criminal prosecution.

In addition, drones would be prohibited from being equipped with “antipersonnel devices,” which are defined as a firearm or any prohibited weapon, device, or projectile designed to harm, incapacitate, or otherwise negatively impact a human being.

The committee approved the bill by a vote of 4-0. It now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

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