Last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis liberalized regulations for the use of drones by law enforcement agencies, under certain conditions. All three sheriff’s offices serving The Villages operate drones for various missions. While officials from two of them say their agencies will likely broaden operations under the new law, which took effect July 1, the third said it likely won’t change anything at the moment.
Prior to the changes, according to a Florida House staff analysis of the new statute, state law prohibited law enforcement agencies from broadly utilizing drones to spy on or gather information about the public. The law also blocked people, such as landlords, or state agencies from using drones to record a person’s image in violation of his or her reasonable expectation of privacy.
The legal standard for that meant drones were outlawed for watching people who cannot be seen by others at ground level who are in a place they have a legal right to be.
Yet, as with any law, there were exceptions.
When to Drone
Law enforcement agencies in the state could use drones to gather evidence or intelligence if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security determined that a credible, high risk of a terrorist attack may occur and drones could prevent it.
Agencies also could utilize drones after obtaining search warrants, or, as the staff report notes, if immediate action is needed to “prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence,” or to “search for a missing person.”
The new law enacted by DeSantis opened more exceptions.
For example, law enforcement agencies can now use drones to gain an aerial perspective of any crowd of 50 people or more.
In those cases, legal guidelines mandate that the head of those agencies provide written authorization for the use of drones, and maintain a file of those occasions. There also are requirements to store, retain and release any images or video taken by a drone. And the personal safety and constitutional rights of people being observed must be protected.
Drones can also now assist with traffic management, although law enforcement agencies may not issue traffic tickets based on the images or videos captured by a drone.
Finally, law enforcement agencies can resort to drones to collect evidence at the scene of a crime or traffic crash.
In other instances, other state or local government agencies can use drones to survey damage caused by floods, wildfires, or other natural disasters. They may fly them to conduct vegetation or wildlife management on public land or water. And certain fire department personnel can use drones to perform tasks that fall within the scope and practice of their certifications.
The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office’s drone squad — eight certified pilots with six aircraft— serves in different capacities.
Its machines can get inside homes or other buildings to see suspects and hostages in a SWAT situation, or be used to track down suspects or “wanderers,” the term for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s who walk away from their homes or caregivers.
Chief Deputy Chris Haworth said the agency was already studying ways to expand the capability of the drone unit before the changes took effect. The broader rules will boost the capability of the drone squad, he added.
“We’re definitely not going backward. The ability of the drones in rapid deployment is pretty unbelievable,” said Haworth, adding that the Sheriff’s Office was considering how to deploy two drones per shift instead of just one.
“We do have one of the premier drone units in Central Florida,” Haworth said. The key to this is it expands our ability to use them. It will become more functional.”
Sgt. Paul Bloom, spokesman for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency does not have a dedicated drone team. Rather, it has a drone pilot who works as part of the public affairs unit for photography.
But the pilot remains on call in case he is needed for a search or with a SWAT situation, Bloom said.
More Potential Uses
“We would potentially use this for a lost child, for instance, or a dementia patient that walked off. We have used this at crime scenes for an aerial view where a helicopter would be too invasive. For SWAT, we can take a closer look at a barricaded subject without jeopardizing any of our troops,” Bloom noted.
Bloom added that he believes other agencies will start using drones more frequently going forward, as well.
“As technology advances, we love to find ways to use it to make our citizens more safe and fight crime,” Bloom said. “There is an obvious fear that some folks have that law enforcement or government agencies would utilize this technology to spy on them. To the contrary, if we are to utilize the drone for certain activities, we include that in the wording of our search warrant.”
“Our policy, along with state and federal laws, prohibit the use of a drone in any unlawful manner,” Bloom added. “I think the new changes that have come about will help. One of the laws that the FAA had in place was that we could not fly over a crowd of people. However, this new law will allow us to provide better security for large events where a helicopter would not be recommended.”
No Change Expected
Sgt. Chris Stevens, the drone unit commander for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, said officials are still studying the new law to ascertain its effects. But, he added, at this point he didn’t think it would change the unit’s operations.
Lake’s drone team consists of 14 aircraft and 17 pilots, he said. Like Sumter and Marion, Lake’s drones are deployed when needed to support the SWAT unit.
Beyond that, the Sheriff’s Office utilizes its drones for search-and-rescue, such as for people who get lost in the woods or dementia wanderers, and “overwatch” missions, which Stevens described as when suspects go on the lam. The agency also has used its equipment on occasion to support firefighters trying to analyze a blaze.
“We’re still looking at that,” he said of the law’s new language, “but a lot of the stuff we do is reactive. I don’t foresee it changing our
operations at all.”
Staff Writer Bill Thompson can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or [email protected].