Florida’s New Drone Law: Fulltime Employment for Lawyers?

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.

The Lawyers are lapping at my doorstep!Enter Florida’s new drone law.

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 persons 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.

Is the FAA On a Collision Course With the First Amendment?

I’ve been pretty busy, this week, and have just gotten caught up with this story about a letter from the FAA to Tampa Bay-area drone hobbyist Jayson Hanes. The precise meaning and intent of the letter is rather more vague than the writer suggests. As Hanes himself correctly pointed out in an interview, the FAA has not demanded that Hanes cease and desist from flying, or from posting his videos on YouTube, and has not threatened any enforcement action against him.

Nevertheless, this, and another recent story of a drone hobbyist in Maine who was told by the FAA that he would have to take down his website, raise a troubling concern that the FAA may be on a collision course with the First Amendment. Matters of free speech are not within the agency’s normal purview, which might explain the naïveté of an agent seeking to challenge one’s right to post videos on the internet.  Hanes commented that the FAA “is trying to flex its muscles” in an area that it doesn’t understand.

We understand that the FAA might be having difficulty enforcing its commercial drone ban.  The agency is not equipped to handle traditional law enforcement duties.  There are no police cars with flashing lights and the letters, “F-A-A,” emblazoned on their doors.  Everyone knows that non-compliance is rampant, and that the odds of getting caught and punished are low.

But such difficulties often prove to be the undoing of police agencies across the country.  The law books are full of cases where, out of sheer frustration, law enforcement officials overreached their constitutional boundaries and violated the rights of private citizens.  Avoiding such scenarios requires training and vigilance by those charged with enforcing the law.

As Peter Sachs commented to Motherboard, “It would behoove the FAA Office of Chief Counsel to make it abundantly clear to all aviation safety inspectors that the First Amendment is alive and well.”

Of course, the agency would more easily avoid getting itself into these kinds of embarrassing public relations imbroglios if it adhered to its own definition of what constitutes a “commercial” operation – i.e., activity with a business nexus.  It simply defies logic to say that posting videos on YouTube has any sort of nexus with business activity.

Hollywood Welcomes the Drones

Nice report from CNN on Hollywood’s official foray into drone photography:

A small UAV offers amazing advantages for filmmakers – acting both as a crane and as an aerial photography platform.  This will save huge dollars in production costs and logistics.

Unfortunately, the FAA’s exemption system to date sets high barriers to entry that, in our view, are largely unnecessary.

BREAKING: PIRKER CASE SETTLES

The Raphael Pirker case has settled.  Not terribly surprising, given the appellate ruling.  Pirker had little incentive to continue defending the case.  He agreed to a reduced fine of $1,100, with no admission of wrongdoing.

The FAA might be feeling like the more fortunate party in this transaction:

In a letter Pirker shared with me, a judge with the National Transportation Safety Board asked the agency why, essentially, it was putting a foreign national through the ringer for a relatively minor (and legally unclear) infraction. The FAA is allowed to take legal enforcement action against foreign nationals in three circumstances: The person has an FAA airman’s certificate; the person commits a violation as a passenger; or the person runs a “foreign repair station.” Otherwise, the FAA is supposed to refer the case to the person’s home country, in this case, Switzerland. The FAA didn’t do that.

Pirker “does not fall within the three circumstances that provide for taking of legal enforcement action … it is determined that this issue is best addressed, and appropriately resolved, prior to commencing a hearing,” the judge wrote.

[Pirker’s attorney Brendan] Schulman said that’s another reason why the FAA should be happy to put this behind them.

The allegedly offending video can be viewed, here:

Thus ends a very interesting regulatory dispute.  It won’t be the last.

FAA Grants 2 More Section 333 Exemptions

The FAA tweeted news this morning that it has granted 2 more Section 333 exemptions for the use of drones in agriculture and real estate.  One exemption was granted to a realtor in Arizona, the second to Advanced Aviation Solutions in Spokane, Washington, to conduct “precision agriculture” through photogrammetry and crop scouting. The former exemption – the Arizona realtor – might be of broader interest because the proposal was to operate a popular DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ quad-copter

to conduct aerial videography and cinematography to enhance academic community awareness for those individuals and companies unfamiliar with the geographical layout of the metro Tucson area and augment real estate listing videos.

From there, the document consists of 26 pages of mind-numbing bureaucrat-speak and absurdities that would have given Vaclav Havel a chuckle.  For example, the petitioner asked for relief from the requirement of having a private or commercial pilot’s license.  The FAA’s response:

Regarding the petitioner’s requested relief from 14 CFR 61.113(a) and (b), Private pilot privileges and limitations, the petitioner requested regulatory relief to operate his UAS without an FAA-certificated pilot. In support of his request, the petitioner states that “while helpful, a pilot license will not ensure remote control piloting skills.” However, the FAA does not possess the authority to exempt the petitioner from the statutory requirement to hold an airman certificate, as prescribed in 49 USC § 44711 [Ed. – prohibiting a person from serving “in any capacity as an airman . . . without an airman certificate authorizing the airman to serve in the capacity for which the certificate was issued….”].  Although Section 333 provides limited statutory flexibility relative to 49 USC § 44704 for the purposes of airworthiness certification, it does not provide similar flexibility relative to other sections of Title 49.

So, apparently the FAA has discretion to disregard section 44711 if you’re a hobbyist, but not if you’re a commercial operator.  Yes, we know about the hobbyist exception under FMRA, but this takes statutory construction to an absurd level. The FAA doesn’t stop there:

Unlike operations pursuant to public COAs, the FAA is also requiring a pilot certificate for UAS operations for two reasons, the first of which is to satisfy the statutory requirements as stated above. The second is because pilots holding an FAA issued private or commercial pilot certificate are subject to the security screening by the Department of Homeland Security that certificated airmen undergo. As previously determined by the Secretary of Transportation, the requirement to have an airman certificate ameliorates security concerns over civil UAS operations conducted in accordance with Section 333.

Um, why not simply require a background check?  Not that we think it should be necessary, but we trust non-pilots with Global Entry cards.  The background check requirements are at least as rigorous. The FAA then considers the objections of the Airline Pilots Association [We didn’t see that coming! – Ed.], but finds that a commercial pilot’s license should not be necessary. Various commenters have pointed to numerous other absurdities, and we do not have time to explore them all in detail.  But most absurd of all is the amount of resources that has gone into drafting, submitting, and reviewing one petition from an individual who wishes to operate his Phantom 2 for commercial purposes.  This is not only an absurd way to go about things; it is horribly wasteful and raises impossible barriers to entry for many thousands of potential entrepreneurs. There has got to be a better way.

Drone Tech News of the Day

Every day, we see more and more stories on developments in drone tech. Here are some stories that have been making the rounds, today.

Somebody went out and created a biodegradable drone:

The bulk of the prototype is made of a root-like fungal material called mycelium. It was cultivated in a custom drone shape by Ecovative Design, a company in Green Island, New York, that grows the stuff as a lightweight sustainable alternative for applications like wine packaging and surfboard cores.

The fungal body has a protective covering of sticky cellulose “leather” sheets grown by bacteria in the lab. Coating the sheets are proteins cloned from the saliva of paper wasps – usually used to waterproof their nests. Circuits were printed in silver nanoparticle ink, in an effort to make the device as biodegradable as possible.

So far, so good. But then there’s this:

The next part the team hope to make safe to degrade are the drone’s sensors, and they have already started studying how to build them using E. coli bacteria.

Gross.

DJI has launched a kick-ass new drone that includes a 4k camera. We just like the way this looks.

Back in Hollywood, people are starting to understand the potential benefits from the FAA’s approval of seven 333 exemption applications:

The day rate for a helicopter can range from $20,000 to $40,000 with crew. Operating a drone with crew can cut costs down to a rate that ranges between $9,000 to $15,000, according to Carmean. Elements that affect drone day rates pends the camera, aircraft, crew and location.

“The possibility of making shots that you couldn’t do before is extremely exciting. A director and a director of photography can say I want this shot in a movie and we can get it without a helicopter,” said Poster.

“The insurance; it’s a lot cheaper to insure a 25-pound drone than it is to insure a three-ton helicopter,” Chris Schuster, CEO and lead drone pilot at Vortex Aerial told TheWrap.

The demo video at the link is pretty cool.

Music Video Would Be Illegal to Film in the U.S.!

Pop band OK GO is well-known for its innovative music videos, in which the band captures amazing in-camera effects and choreography in a single take. Their most recent video, for their song, “I Won’t Let You Down,” is no exception. This Busby Berkeley-style production will put a smile on your face:

How did they manage to do that? Well, part of the answer is that they used a drone.

It is perhaps worth noting that the video was filmed in Japan, where they seem to have taken a more pragmatic approach to drone photography than our own government. If this had been filmed in the U.S., OK GO might have been hit with a hefty fine, and we might have been deprived of the pleasure of watching this delightful production.

Are Drones Are Invading Our Privacy?

Business Insider has a well-written article on the issue of whether we should be concerned about drones invading our privacy, and whether new laws are needed to address those concerns. “Private citizens,” the article notes, “have grown increasingly concerned that these technologies could invade their privacy.”

Attorney Brendan Schulman – who has become the go-to guy for comments on sUAS issues – provides a healthy dose of context to these concerns:

As Schulman points out, most states already have laws to address the type of invasions that concern people. For example, peeping tom laws criminalize peering into someone’s windows. And private property laws prevent someone from building a treehouse over their neighbor’s yard. You likely can’t fly a drone there for the same reason, Schulman says.

“If I’m taking pictures through a window,” he said, “and I use a broom stick instead of a drone, it’s the invasive behavior that concerns lawmakers — not what you use.”

The article notes that the camera technology for most civilian drones is not very useful for surveillance. The writer points to this wide-angle city-scape of Seattle, taken by a drone photographer, which illustrates the point that it’s actually very difficult to photograph any sort of details unless the drone gets very close to the subject.

seattle-police-report-drone-photo

Our view is that privacy concerns are just another example of the sort of moral panic that tends to follow in the wake of our permanent, 24/7 news cycle, where perceptions of an issue and reality tend to get out of alignment. We will be observing developments, but contrary to the conventional wisdom in the media, it is neither the most interesting, nor the most important, issue relating to drone law and regulations.

FAA agrees to movie production exemption

The FAA has agreed to grant an exemption to Hollywood production companies to use drones in aerial photography. Although the scope of the exemption is not entirely clear, based on the article, this seems like a breakthrough:

In May, seven aerial photo and video production companies asked for regulatory exemptions (known as a 333 exemption) that would allow the film and television industry to use drones with FAA approval. Those seven companies and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), were asked by the FAA to develop the guidelines and safety procedures under which they planned to operate. The FAA reviewed those procedures and is expected to approve the drone-specific rules and standards that will enable Hollywood to be exempt from existing aviation regulations.

One might hope that those procedures can serve as a model for other aerial photographers, but with one major caveat: Hollywood productions tend to exercise greater control over the filming location than many could possibly afford. A typical movie or television location crew will employ local law enforcement and/or private security to prevent interlopers from wandering onto the set. They also tend to have numerous production assistants acting as spotters and gofers, all within walkie-talkie range.

Still, progress is progress. It will be interesting to see the final guidelines when they are published.

Real estate video company takes a defiant stance

Given all the meekness we’ve seen in the face of the FAA’s bullying, we find the attitude of this real estate video company representative to be rather refreshing:

“The use of drones in real estate is neither legal, nor illegal. It just has not been regulated yet,” says Brian Doe, director of Business Development at Home Jab; a real estate video production company offering a network of trained filmmakers who create aerial video for real estate marketing.

… “It’s kind of like saying ‘you can’t speed,’ but the road has no speed limit. So how do you determine what speeding is? There is no way to enforce any rule, there is nothing out there about UAV’s, especially fewer than 55 pounds,” says Doe.

We couldn’t have said it better.