On the last day of the legislative session, the Georgia Senate gave final agreement to the first statewide drone bill. If signed by Governor Deal, House Bill 779 would regulate unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) in three significant ways:
It would make it a felony to weaponize a drone,
It would limit law enforcement's use of drones in surveillance and the gathering of evidence, and
It would preempt local and county ordinances adopted after April 1 of this year.
The legislation would also establish the Georgia Unmanned Vehicle Systems Commission, which would study how to promote UAS business in the state.
A conviction for selling, transporting, manufacturing, possessing or operating a UAS equipped with a weapon carries a penalty of between one and three years in prison and a fine up to $100,000.
The limitations on law enforcement make it clear that use of a UAS to gather evidence or information for a criminal prosecution constitutes a search. Police must comply with the code section, the Fourth Amendment and the Georgia Constitution; evidence gathered in violation of the section would not be admissible in a criminal prosecution unless an exception to the search warrant requirement applies, or there are other extenuating circumstances.
Additionally, subject to specific enumerated exceptions, this section goes further than simply requiring compliance with the Fourth Amendment. It also provides an affirmative prohibition on UAS use and specifies that law enforcement agencies cannot use a UAS to gather evidence or other information in a private place, or from an individual in a private place.
There are four exceptions:
If a judge authorizes a search warrant,
If there is a reasonable suspicion that swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life,
If there is a need for continuous aerial coverage during a search for a fugitive or escapee, or while monitoring a hostage situation,
If there is a need for aerial coverage during and active search for a missing person.
It also includes significant limitations on the data collected by law enforcement using a UAS. Specifically, data that is collected on a person, home or other areas other than the target of the investigation may not be used, copied or disclosed for any purpose. This data must be deleted as soon as possible and no later than five days after collection.
The provision that nullifies any ordinance, resolution, policy, etc. of any political subdivision relating to “testing or operation of” UASs appears to be an attempt to avoid a complex patchwork of potentially conflicting rules. It allows enforcement of ordinances that predate April 1, 2016. In other words, if the Augusta-Richmond County Commission acts before April 1 to ban drones permanently over sporting events such as the Masters Golf Tournament, it will not be affected.
In an apparent effort to allow local governments to control hobby UAS use, which has exploded in last few months, the provision would allow a political subdivision to prohibit the launch or landing of UASs on its public property, except with regard to drones used for commercial purposes.
Finally, the Georgia Unmanned Vehicle Systems Commission would have 20 members that would be appointed by the President of the Senate (three appointees), the Speaker of the House (three appointees), the Governor (two appointees) plus 12 others from various state and private constituencies, some of which are also selected by the Governor.
The Commission would meet four times a year and submit an annual report by December 1. The primary focus is on economic development of the UAS industry across the spectrum of activities from manufacturing and testing to operations in multiple industry segments.
John Fry is a partner with the law firm of Morris, Manning & Martin, LLP. This column is presented for educational and informational purposes and is not intended to constitute legal advice.
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