Focus on New Laws: Law Enforcement Use of Drones

July 20, 2020

A new law that goes into effect on Aug. 1 generally requires a search warrant before law enforcement use of drones.

A new law addressing law enforcement use of drones is found in Chapter 82, the omnibus data privacy bill. Sections 1, 2, and 5 address law enforcement use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), which is governed by a new statute, Minnesota Statutes, section 626.19.

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

Search warrant requirement

Under the new requirements, law enforcement agencies are generally required to obtain a search warrant before using a drone. However, search warrants are not required 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 in anticipation of a specific event.
  • To collect information from a public area if there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
  • To collect information for crash-reconstruction purposes after a serious or deadly collision occurring on a public road.
  • Over a public area for officer training or public relations purposes.
  • For a non-law-enforcement purpose at the written request of a government entity. The government entity must specify the reason for the request and proposed period of use.

This last exception applies if another city department requests the use of a drone from the police department.

Limitation on drone use

The law prohibits deploying facial recognition or other biometric-matching technology on drones, unless authorized by a warrant. It also prohibits equipping drones with weapons or collecting data on public protests or demonstrations unless authorized by a warrant or under one of the search warrant exceptions above.

Data classification

Data collected by a UAV is classified as private data on individuals or nonpublic data. Exceptions include:

  • If the data subject requests a copy of the recording; data on other individuals who do not consent to its release must be redacted.
  • Disclosure as necessary in an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or bodily harm to a person.
  • Disclosure to the government entity making a request for UAV use for non-law-enforcement purposes.
  • If UAV data is criminal investigative data, this data is governed by Minnesota Statutes, section 13.82, subdivision 7.
  • Classification under other provisions of Minnesota Statutes, chapter 13 are retained.

Retention period

Law enforcement agencies are required to delete drone data collected within seven days after collection, unless the data is part of an active criminal investigation.

No Tennessen warning

Under the new law, a Tennessen warning is not required for data collected by a UAV.

Documentation

Law enforcement agencies are required to document each use of a UAV, including providing a case number and the factual basis for each use. Documentation must also include what statutory exception under Minnesota Statutes, section 626.19, subdivision 3 applies if a warrant was not obtained.

Public comment requirements

Before a law enforcement agency purchases or uses a UAV, the agency must provide an opportunity for public comment. The agency itself must accept public comment electronically or by mail.

The city council must also provide an opportunity for public comment at a regularly scheduled meeting.

Written policies

Similar to requirements for body-worn cameras, prior to the operation of a UAV, the police chief must establish and enforce a written policy that governs its use. This includes a policy for handling requests for use by other government agencies.

While developing and adopting this policy, the agency must provide an opportunity for public comment, either electronically or by mail. The council must also provide the opportunity for public comment at a regularly scheduled council meeting.

The UAV policy must be displayed on the agency’s website, unless the agency does not have a website.

If police departments acquire drones now, the Legislature allowed leeway on the deadline for related policy adoption. Law enforcement agencies have until Feb. 15, 2021, to adopt these policies. However, policies must generally be adopted before law enforcement use of drones.

Reporting

By Jan. 15 of each year, any law enforcement agency that maintains or uses a UAV must report the following information to the commissioner of Public Safety:

  • The total cost of the UAV program.
  • The number of times a UAV has been deployed without a search warrant. This includes the date of the deployment and the statutory warrant exception under Minnesota Statutes, section 626.19, subdivision 3 that authorized the use of the UAV.