The government’s ability to use drones for law enforcement would be curtailed under a bill passed by the New Jersey Assembly on Monday.
The action came a week after the Federal Aviation Administration announced that New Jersey was one of nine states chosen for its testing of “unmanned aircraft.”
Under the bill, law enforcement agencies would not be allowed to use drones to conduct surveillance, gather evidence or engage in other law enforcement activity without first getting a warrant based on probable cause—unless there are exigent circumstances or officials get written consent from the person they are targeting.
Another exception would apply to searches for missing people and Amber alerts.
No one would be permitted to send up an armed drone, which would be treated as a fourth-degree crime, punishable by up to 18 months’ imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.
If drone surveillance picks up video or verbal communication unrelated to an ongoing criminal investigation, the information would have to be discarded within 14 days, along with any information derived from it.
Information obtained in violation of the law could not be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution.
Nor could it be disclosed in any other judicial, administrative, arbitration or legislative proceeding, and it would not be usable “to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause that an offense has been, is being, or is about to be committed.”
The restrictions would not apply to forest firefighter services, or other fire departments, paid or volunteer.
Emergency management personnel would be free to use drones to survey or monitor the extent of an emergency.
But they would have to safeguard the information or records of a verbal or video communication derived from the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle, which the bill says “shall not be made available or disclosed to the public or any third party.”
Agencies that use drones would have documentation and inspection responsibilities and an obligation to file annual reports with the Attorney General’s Office.
The legislation uses the term “unmanned aerial vehicles,” defined as “owned or operated by any branch of the Armed Forces of the United States or any law enforcement agency, or agent or employee thereof, that uses aerodynamic forces to propel the vehicle and does not carry a human operator, and is capable of flying autonomously or being piloted remotely and conducting surveillance.”
The bill, A-4073, cleared the Assembly by a 76-1 vote. It includes provisions not in a similar bill, S-2702, passed by the Senate in a 36-0 vote on June 27.
The warrant requirement was added on Dec. 16 by the Assembly’s Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee.
After Monday’s vote, Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, a sponsor, said the bill “strikes the right balance” between the needs of law enforcement and “protect[ion of] personal privacy in this age of ever-expanding technology.”
The only legislator to vote against the bill was Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, a lawyer who disagrees with the warrant requirement, saying drones should be treated the same as airplanes.
For example, a police chief who suspected someone was illegally growing marijuana could send up a plane without a warrant, he says.
The measure now goes back to the Senate to reconcile the two versions.