The following column by House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones, Jr. (R-North Reading) appeared in the September 17 edition of the Boston Globe’s North Section:
One of the most fundamental legal protections enshrined in the US Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights is the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Under the Fourth Amendment, all citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy and cannot be subject to a search without a probable cause warrant.
The growing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, presents a challenge to upholding personal privacy rights in Massachusetts because our state laws have not kept pace with this rapidly evolving technology. That may soon change.
Proposed legislation I am cosponsoring would require police to obtain a search warrant before using drones as part of a criminal investigation. Several other states – including Florida, Maine, North Dakota and Virginia – already have similar requirements in place, and Massachusetts residents should be able to enjoy these same protections.
Requiring warrants for drone surveillance would in no way hinder law enforcement’s ability to investigate suspected criminal activity. Rather, it would simply ensure that state and municipal police departments are following the same procedures they already use when conducting an investigation without the use of drone technology.
The proposed legislation contains a provision allowing drones to be used without a warrant in certain limited emergency situations, but only if there is “reasonable cause” to believe there is an imminent threat to the life or safety of a person, such as when a child goes missing. In these cases, the operator of the drone would be required to document the specific nature of the emergency, and a supervisor would need to file an affidavit detailing the reasons for the warrant-less emergency usage within 48 hours of the drone’s deployment.
The bill contains additional privacy protections by mandating drones be used only to collect data on the individual who is the actual subject of the warrant, and requiring any data collected on other individuals not targeted by the warrant be deleted within 24 hours.
Currently, only a handful of municipal police departments in Massachusetts have purchased drones, including Attleborough and Hanover, but that number is likely to increase in the future. Implementing statewide guidelines now, including a warrant requirement for conducting drone surveillance, is critical to ensuring residents’ civil liberties and civil rights are properly protected.