Drone photo from Palm Beach police raises legal question

In Florida, a drone photo from the Palm Beach Police Department that shows a pelican mid-flight raises the question if it’s legal to use a drone to patrol the beach.

According to Florida Statute 934.50, a law enforcement agency may not use a drone to gather evidence or other information. The statute states that law enforcement cannot present evidence collected with a drone in a criminal prosecution case. This means that even if you would see people gathering on a beach in direct violation of the town’s emergency ordinance, implemented in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus, arrests could not be made, based on the drone images.

Drone photo from Palm Beach police raises legal question

According to the same statute, a drone cannot be used by law enforcement agencies to record an image of a privately owned property.

However, according to the Palm Beach Post, the United States Supreme Court deems that aerial observations from the curtilage of a home are generally not prohibited by the Fourth Amendment as long as the government is conducting the surveillance from public navigable airspace. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, this means 500 feet above the surface. The drones used by the Palm Beach Police Department do not fly higher than 400 feet since that is the maximum altitude that is allowed by the FAA.

The Florida statute allows for some exceptions, such as preventing imminent danger to life, or serious damage to property, to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence, and to facilitate the search for a missing person.

Palm Beach Police Lieutenant William Rothrock explains that:

“Some of these flights are done for training officers and equipment installed on patrol cars. We are in a state of emergency, but we’re not using images to collect evidence on people, we couldn’t and we wouldn’t do it,” he said.

The beaches in Palm Beach have been closed, since Governor Ron DeSantis issued a state of emergency on March 9th. Two weeks later, on March 20th, he also signed executive order 20-70. This order allowed individual municipalities to impose tighter restrictions within their jurisdictions.

Rothrock explains that the Palm Beach Police Department’s use of drones is mainly to educate the public.

“If the drone captures an image of a large gathering on one of the beaches, we would dispatch officers to the location in order to disperse people and remind them that being on the beach is an emergency ordinance violation. We would not use this information to make arrests,” he said.

He also said that the police drones are very helpful because they allow the department to patrol places where law enforcement vehicles or ATVs cannot go.

“Right, now we have limited resources and high coal volumes. We can’t have officers on the beaches all the time. That’s where the drones come in,” he said.

On January 14th, Republican senator Joe Gruters from Sarasota introduced the Florida Senate Bill 520, which amends the existing statute on drone usage by law enforcement to loosen some of the current restrictions.

If this bill were to pass, law enforcement agencies would be allowed to use drones to perform tasks such as traffic management, collection of evidence at crime scenes, aerial perspective of a crowd of 50 or more people, and the assessment of damage caused by natural disaster.

However, this bill did not pass the necessary third committee, and on March 14th, it was declared “indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration” by the Florida legislature and the Senate’s rules committee.

Photo courtesy of the Palm Beach Police Department

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Haye Kesteloo

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