New Law Requires Search Warrant for Law Enforcement Use of Drones

May 18, 2020

The measure, which passed as part of the omnibus data privacy bill, also includes several other new requirements for law enforcement use of drones.

Several provisions related to law enforcement use of drones were passed by the Legislature as part of the omnibus data privacy bill, SF 3072 (Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul). Gov. Tim Walz signed the bill into law as Chapter 82 on May 16.

The effective date for the new drone requirements is Aug. 1, 2020, and any related written policies must be adopted by Feb. 15, 2021.

New drone requirements

The new law requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before using drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). However, there are exceptions. No search warrant is needed when a drone is used:

  • During or in the aftermath of an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or bodily harm to a person.
  • Over a public event where there is heightened risk to the safety of participants or bystanders.
  • To counter the risk of a terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization.
  • To prevent the loss of life and property in natural or man-made disasters and to facilitate post-recovery efforts.
  • To conduct a threat assessment.
  • To collect information over a public area if there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
  • For crash-reconstruction purposes.
  • Over a public area for officer training or public relations purposes.
  • For a non-law enforcement purpose at the request of a government entity.

Limitations on drone use

The new law prohibits facial recognition or other biometric-matching technology on drones, unless authorized by a warrant. It also disallows equipping drones with weapons. Law enforcement agencies are also prohibited from collecting data on public protests or demonstrations unless authorized by a warrant or one of the exceptions above.

Additional drone provisions

The new law also includes the following provisions related to drone use by law enforcement:

  • Data classification. Drone data is generally classified as private or nonpublic data. This data must be destroyed in seven days unless it is active criminal investigative data. There are additional provisions on storage and disclosure of data.
  • Public comments. Law enforcement agencies must accept public comment before purchasing or using a drone, which must be allowed electronically or by mail. City councils must also allow public comment at a regularly scheduled meeting.
  • Written policy. Before operating a drone, law enforcement agencies are required to establish and enforce a written policy governing its use, including a policy on requests for use from government entities. Public comment on written policies must be allowed in the same manner as above. The written policy needs to be posted on the law enforcement agency’s website, if the agency has one.
  • Reporting requirements. Every year by Jan. 15, law enforcement agencies maintaining or using drones must report to the Commissioner of Public Safety:
    • The number of times a drone was deployed without a search warrant issued, identifying the date of deployment and the authorized use of the UAV under statutory exceptions.
    • The total cost of the agency’s UAV program.

For more background on the drone provisions, see a previous article.

Other provisions

The other provisions of the omnibus data privacy bill include:

  • Publication criteria for court of appeals opinions.
  • Search warrant required for electronic communications information.
  • Electronic device location tracking warrants.
  • Scope of location tracking warrants expanded.