TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senators Nicholas J. Sacco (D-Hudson/Bergen) and Nicholas P. Scutari (D-Union/Middlesex) 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 received final legislative approval in the state Senate.
“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 Senator Sacco, Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “While this technology has many useful applications, it 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 that law enforcement agency has obtained a warrant, or exigent circumstances exist making it unreasonable to obtain a warrant. A law enforcement agency is not required to obtain a warrant if a person or property owner that the agency seeks information about provides written consent permitting the use of a drone.
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 a forest fire, and for any fire department to use them to monitor the extent of damage caused by a fire to a building or structure. Finally, it would permit the Office of Emergency Management to use drones in the event of an emergency, including but not limited to: a hurricane, flood, or terrorist act. An office of emergency management or fire department that utilizes a drone would not be subject to the warrant requirements imposed on law enforcement agencies.
“As law enforcement agencies respond to fires, missing person reports, and other emergencies, drones are an effective way to survey large areas in a short amount of time. But these benefits do not come without some concerns, and we need act preemptively to prevent potential abuses of this technology,” said Senator Scutari, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Through this legislation, we can take advantage of its useful applications, without jeopardizing the privacy of our citizens.”
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 Assembly approved the bill by a vote of 76-1-1 on January 6. It cleared the Senate today with a vote of 34-2. It now heads to the Governor’s desk.