A proposal to let Florida law enforcement fly drones for surveying purposes cleared its penultimate committee Monday.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters’s bill (SB 520) would authorize drone use for crowd control, gather evidence and post-incident use. The Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee unanimously advanced the legislation Monday.

“Expanding the use of drones for law enforcement will create efficiencies and enhance public safety in Florida,” Gruters told Florida Politics in November, when it passed its first committee.

But that bill had since sat in the Infrastructure and Security Committee. And an amendment, filed by committee Chairman Sen. Tom Lee, narrowed the possible use of drones from firefighting and other disaster management to only law enforcement.

“To me, it makes sense to try to narrow this down and test this only with respect to law enforcement and doing investigations after a crime has been committed or a traffic accident,” Lee said.

Questions over citizens’ 4th amendment rights had tainted the original bill. Still, Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo voiced her concerns over the bill’s scope before ultimately voting in favor.

“We don’t want this to become something that gets used voyeuristically by law enforcement or anybody else to go out and surveil people and what have you without public right-of-way type of cause,” Lee said.

The devices could also help gather evidence at crashes and other crime scenes, helping to clear areas faster than is currently possible.

“Just to be crystal clear, this bill is very, very specific on what law enforcement can do, and it does not change, amend or alter the constitutional privacy protections that are in place now,” Gruters said. “And so you can rest assured that this is a good bill and it is widely supported.”

State and federal law continue to evolve on drone use, and a staff report on Gruters’ legislation notes a Federal Aviation Administration change last year allowing drones to be flown over large groups and at night.

Drones remain an emerging technology in the law enforcement realm. As of November, about 12 of Florida’s 67 Sheriff’s Offices and 32 of the state’s 139 police agencies currently have drones; another 10 departments intend to obtain them in the near future.

But across the country, law enforcement agencies continue to explore how the flying devices can be used to improve public safety.

Guters’ bill next heads to the Rules Committee, its final of three panels before heading to the Senate floor. A similar bill (HB 1433), filed by Rep. Clay Yarborough, advanced through its first of three House committees last month.
Last Session, Gruters’ bill cleared the Criminal Justice Committee but never landed on the Senate floor, crashing instead in the Rules Committee.