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May 15, 2015

Bill governing law enforcement's use of drones advances

N.J. would require warrants for use of drones in criminal investigations

A bill to require law enforcement to get a warrant before using a drone passed the New Jersey Assembly yesterday in an effort by its sponsors to legislative a growing, and largely unregulated, technology that is challenging conventional views of privacy.

The bill was meant to “make sure there is a proper check and balance between law enforcement and the judicial system,” said Assemblyman Daniel Benson, D-Mercer, one of the primary sponsors of the bill.

Before the close of the state's last legislative session in 2014, officials passed a similar measure but Governor Chris Christie let the session expire without acting, which resulted in a pocket veto of the bill. The current bill is a second attempt.

The bill provides for some exemptions. In case of emergencies, such as active fires, missing person searches or cases where there is probable cause of criminal activity, police and fire officials could bypass the warrant requirement.

Benson said the proposed rules were meant to balance privacy and the ability of law enforcement to work effectively.

“It is not too high of a hurdle for most investigations,” Benson said.

Drones are becoming cheaper and more popularThe Consumer Electronics Association projects drone sales will increase by 55 percent in 2015. And their ability to hover over a specific location makes them a natural tool for investigators trying to track a suspect's movements or actions.

Some police departments have argued that drones provide a cost-effective alternative to manned searches.

Along with their recreational use, drones have also brought notoriety for their potential problems, such as when one crashed on the White House lawn causing a security scare.

“Clearly, drones have been in the news quite a bit,” Benson said. 

Therefore, he said it was important that rules were in place so in areas where individuals expected privacy, such as in their own backyard, they wouldn’t face the unrestricted intrusion of police or fire department drones.

Despite Christie's decision not to sign the bill in 2014, Benson was hopeful that this time the governor would be supportive.

“Our hope is it will get a … broader review,” said Benson, who added that he had talked with the governor's office about its thoughts on the bill's language. Christie’s office commonly declines to discuss legislation until it is on his desk and a spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Under the bill, footage taken in emergency situations would need to be deleted within 14 business days.

The New Jersey Press Association last year said it opposed part of the bill that required video to be deleted, according to

“One need only look back as recently as Hurricane Sandy to see that information, which can be obtained from the use of drones during a state emergency could provide the public with valuable information,” said George H. White, the association’s executive director, reported.

In addition to requiring warrants, the bill also forbids equipping drones with weapons.

A request for comment to the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police was not immediately returned.

The bill passed, 66-1, and now heads to the Senate.