Nothing can kill the growth of the commercial drone industry so much as bad laws and misguided regulations. And much as we discuss the issues surrounding federal regulation of drones, the industry faces equally difficult challenges at the state level, where an odd coalition of reactionaries from both the left and far-right have clamored for strict regulations on the use of drones, if not outright bans. State legislators are feeling the heat.
Last week, Governor Scott signed Senate Bill 766 – called the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act (“FUSA”) – into law. This new law adds language to Florida’s existing drone law, found at Section 934.50, Florida Statutes, providing for additional protections against drone surveillance, as well as providing a private right of action for violations.
Some have warned that the law will lead to a wave of litigation. For reasons that I will explain in a moment, I am not so sure. In any event, the law is definitely an example of poor draftsmanship, and it unfairly targets drone technology in a way that seems hypocritical. But its scope does not appear to be as broad as others have suggested.
First, some background:
In Florida v. Riley, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a police officer did not conduct a “search”, for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, when he observed a marijuana grow house from a helicopter that crossed the defendant’s property at 400 feet AGL (does that number seem familiar?). Relying on its prior opinion in California v. Ciraolo, in which police inspected the backyard of a house from a fixed-wing aircraft that was flying at 1,000 feet, the Court reasoned that “the home and its curtilage are not necessarily protected from inspection that involves no physical invasion.”
One might not like it, but for nearly three decades Riley and Ciraolo have been the standard for what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy on property as viewed from the air.
Thus, perhaps the most striking aspect of Florida’s FUSA is that it creates a “drone exception” to Riley and Ciraolo:
A person, a state agency, or a political subdivision as defined in s. 11.45 may not use a drone equipped with an imaging device to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image in violation of such person’s reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent. For purposes of this section, a person is presumed to have a reasonable expectation of privacy on his or her privately owned real property if he or she is not observable by persons located at ground level in a place where they have a legal right to be, regardless of whether he or she is observable from the air with the use of a drone.
In other words, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy if you’re observed from a manned aircraft, but you do have such an expectation of privacy when observed from a drone. Go figure.
The statute contains a number of exceptions, such as when law enforcement has obtained a search warrant or when exigent circumstances exist. It also enumerates exceptions for commercial operations, such as land surveys, power grid inspections and, oddly enough, cargo delivery.
But the first commercial exception paragraph is likely to cause some problems. It starts out well enough, excepting images captured:
By a person or an entity engaged in a business or profession licensed by the state, or by an agent, employee, or contractor thereof, if the drone is used only to perform reasonable tasks within the scope of practice or activities permitted under such person’s or entity’s license.
That would seem to cover realtors, doctors, and lawyers, right? I’m just kidding. Lawyers and doctors don’t really need to spy on people.
Well, actually, lawyers do hire “agents” and “contractors” to spy on people. They’re called private investigators. And herein lies a problem:
However, this exception does not apply to a profession in which the licensee’s authorized scope of practice includes obtaining information about the identity, habits, conduct, movements, whereabouts, affiliations, associations, transactions, reputation, or character of any society, person, or group of persons.
In other words, if you’re a licensed private investigator, No exception for you! Which, by extension, means that lawyers also don’t get an exception. Unless they’re lawyers for the state, in which case they can get a search warrant. See how that works?
Speaking as a litigation professional, this is rather silly. Private Investigators are often called to check on whether someone is actually residing at a particular residence, or is hiding out to avoid service of process. Perhaps the legislature couldn’t figure out how to carve a narrow enough exception, or perhaps too many legislatures have been burned by divorce lawyers?
But the part that’s causing a lot of heartburn is the civil remedies provision:
The owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of privately owned real property may initiate a civil action for compensatory damages for violations of this section and may seek injunctive relief to prevent future violations of this section against a person, state agency, or political subdivision that violates paragraph (3)(b). In such action, the prevailing party is entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees from the nonprevailing party based on the actual and reasonable time expended by his or her attorney billed at an appropriate hourly rate and, in cases in which the payment of such a fee is contingent on the outcome, without a multiplier, unless the action is tried to verdict, in which case a multiplier of up to twice the actual value of the time expended may be awarded in the discretion of the trial court.
This sounds scary, and it is. Attorney’s fees typically add up to an amount that is many times an actual damages award for these kind statutory remedies. Some have suggested that the mere threat of a civil lawsuit poses a major hindrance to the development of commercial drones. But does it really?
Let’s go back and look at what the statute prohibits: It says that a person
may not use a drone equipped with an imaging device to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image. . . .
So, a plaintiff would have to prove that the defendant had a specific intent to conduct surveillance on the person or property captured in the image. In other words, you’re not liable for capturing images by mistake, or even incidentally. You have to have a specific intent to conduct surveillance.
That is likely to be a very tough standard for a plaintiff to meet. Discerning plaintiff lawyers (and there are many, believe it or not) might decide it’s not worth the trouble.
But keep in mind that (a) there are a lot of hungry lawyers on the street; (b) questions regarding intent are put to juries; and (c) juries have a way of being unpredictable. So, you might have a lot to think about.
If you have concerns about compliance with Florida’s new FUSA, don’t hesitate to drop me a line or give me a call, via the “Contact” page at the top.
UPDATE: Every so often, I need to remind readers that nothing on this blog should be taken as legal advice. My posts are intended to provide the public with general information, and some light academic discussion. If you need legal advice, please call a lawyer.