California lawmakers pass bill requiring police to obtain a warrant before using drones
A small drone hovers in the sky on Feb. 1, 2014 in Washington (AFP)

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - Strict regulations on how law enforcement and other government agencies can use drones won passage by California lawmakers on Wednesday, a move supporters said would protect privacy and prevent warrantless surveillance.

The bill, which heads to Democratic Governor Jerry Brown after passing 51-0 in the state Assembly, would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before using an unmanned aircraft, or drone, except in emergencies such as a fire or a hostage-taking.

“Over the next decade drone technology will become much more common in California’s airspace,” said Republican Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, the bill's author.  “There are tremendous benefits that can be realized from these tools, but only if we first pass the legislation that will protect our civil and privacy rights from abuses of the technology."

Other public agencies would be able to use drones, or contract for their use, to achieve their "core mission," so long as that mission is not to gather criminal intelligence.

"The potential for abuse of drones is high and we need to be vigilant to ensure our Constitutional rights are protected," said the bill's co-author, Democratic Senator Ted Lieu.

Idaho and Virginia have also passed laws restricting uses of pilotless aircraft because of privacy concerns.

The California law would require that data, video or photos collected from drones be destroyed by public agencies within a year, except in certain cases.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti supported the new regulations but the measure faced opposition from law enforcement groups, including the California Police Chiefs Association and the California State Sheriffs' Association.

The legislation "is an inappropriate attempt to impose search and seizure requirements on California law enforcement agencies beyond what is required by the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution," the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office said in a statement opposing the bill.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently bans the commercial use of drones in the United States and is under growing pressure to set rules that would permit their broader use.

(Additional reporting by Aaron Mendelson; Editing by Eric Walsh)

[Image via Agence France-Presse]