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Political foes unite for limits on police drones

Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane!

It's the unholy alliance of the American Civil Liberties Union and the tea party. Yes it's true, the far left and extreme right have managed to find something in common in that not-so-gentle breeze above our heads.

Drones!

Not the killing machines used by our military in terrorist strikes overseas, but small, unmanned aircraft equipped with cameras that cops might employ for surveillance.

It seems both the ACLU and assorted conservative groups are in wholehearted agreement that law enforcement agencies should not be allowed to use drones except in very specific and dire situations. And that's exactly what the Florida Legislature appears to have in mind. A bill that would severely restrict drone usage was unanimously passed by a Senate committee on Wednesday, with a similar bill scheduled to be heard by a House committee today.

So what is it about these big-boy toys that have pinkos and patriots in agreement?

Basically, it's an inherent mistrust of the government.

Neither side likes the idea of cops — or the FBI, or the CIA or Starfleet Command — recklessly peeping into our backyards or lives.

Sounds reasonable, right?

The problem is figuring out where to draw the line.

The current Senate bill limits drone usage to terrorist, hostage or other urgent situations, unless authorized by a search warrant.

When an Orange County sheriff's captain argued Wednesday that drones might be useful in crowd control situations, the bill's sponsor (Joe Negron, R-Stuart) said that's exactly what King George would have suggested at the Boston Tea Party.

Histrionics aside, it is probably a good idea to come up with regulations that allow police to take advantage of technology without infringing on basic rights.

Personally, I'd err on the side of law enforcement, but I understand the skepticism.

"There is some legitimate law enforcement value to them. And I think most people would be okay with using them for those legitimate reasons,'' St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said. "Where people are going to object is if they're used indiscriminately. If we're checking rooftops and back yards, trying to drum up business, that's a problem.

"But if I had them for the Republican National Convention, or if we had another World Series here, then yeah, give me that.''

At this point, only the Orange County Sheriff's Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department appear to be using drones for law enforcement in the state.

Harmon, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said Wednesday they didn't have any current plans to acquire drones. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office did not respond.

Gualtieri said he is not opposed to drones, but is not sure the value is worth the investment. The Orange County drones, for example, cost $50,000 and can fly for only 15 minutes at a time and go 100 feet in the air.

"It's like a lot of the things we use, like robots or listening devices. They can be great tools, but they still have to be used legally and responsibly,'' Gualtieri said. "Right now, I'd say drones are not at the top of my list.''

Still, it's worth keeping an eye on the issue. And maybe another in the sky.

Political foes unite for limits on police drones 02/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 8:55pm]

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