Drones

California Senate Bans Warrantless Police Drones—Hooray!

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police drone
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Earlier this month the California State Assembly voted to require police to obtain warrants to use drones for surveillance except in exigent circumstances. Now the State Senate has handily passed the legislation with a 25 to 8 vote. The bill would require the police to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause before using a drone for surveillance.

When the Assembly passed the bill, some astute Reason commenters wondered if police do not have to obtain a warrant for helicopter surveillance, why should they be required to get one for drone surveillance? In the 1989 case Florida v. Riley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that since airplanes and helicopters often fly over private property that citizens do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy that their activities will not be observed from the air. Consequently, the police were permitted use evidence obtained without a search warrant from helicopter observation of a greenhouse in which they suspected marijuana was being grown.

Despite this disappointing Supreme Court decision, citizens, nevertheless, could generally count on the fact that police would not be resorting to extensive aerial surveillance due to the cost and trouble in arranging for helicopter flights. That would no longer be the case with development of inexpensive drones.

What the California legislation does is establish that citizens do, in effect, have a reasonable expectation that they will be free of pervasive police drone surveillance. Hooray! Every state should pass such bans as speedily as possible.

NEXT: FBI Examines New Audio from Michael Brown Shooting

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  1. …some astute Reason commenters wondered if police do not have to obtain a warrant for helicopter surveillance, why should they be required to get one for drone surveillance?

    These astute commenters should mind their own business.

    1. These astute commenters would probably also add that ‘exigent circumstance’ are a) pretty much whatever a cop says they are, and b) rarely challengeable after the fact.

  2. California does surprise every so often.

    Hopefully the Gov Brown signs this into law, unlike the time when Gov Davis vetoed a bill restricting localities’ ability to use federal civil seizure laws (California’s civil seizure law is “pro-defendant” so some localities just call the local federal offices).

  3. Time to invest in rubber stamp stock.

  4. So what? It’s not like cops follow the law. I mean, what are you going to do if the cops are flying a drone over your greenhouse? Call the cops?

    Seriously. They’ll just illegally use the drones for surveillance, make some shit up to get a warrant, then legally use the drones. That’s what the DEA does, isn’t it?

    1. +1 Parallel Construction

    2. They’ll just illegally use the drones for surveillance, make some shit up to get a warrant, then legally use the drones.

      They will use the drones for surveillance and once they find something, they will make up some reason to get a warrant for that address. Judge will sign it, and they will raid the wrong house. Same as always.

      1. The dogs in this country can just never catch a break.

  5. A rare instance of moral panic working on the side of freedom.

  6. “Consequently, the police were permitted use evidence obtained without a search warrant from helicopter observation of a greenhouse in which they suspected marijuana was being grown.”

    Thanks WAR ON DRUGS, for taking away my rights. And I don’t even use the stuff.

  7. More damage was done to the Bill of Rights thanks to drug cases than war or terrorism (cases). Of course terrorism is catching up.

    1. The WoT’s only been around for ~13 years, the WoD for, what, 70+?

  8. require police to obtain warrants to use drones for surveillance except in exigent circumstances.

    All circs are exigent. hth

    1. If a furtive movement justifies a fatal shooting, then I can’t imagine any circumstances that aren’t “exigent” in CopWorld.

  9. I’m more concerned about non-police using drones: this still allows criminals, pedophiles, would-be thieves to be able to spy and record and completely invade people’s privacy

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