Adding Exemptions, Texas Senate Approves Drone Bill

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi engineering student Adam Ersepke and lab coordinator Jack Edward Esparza prepare for the take off of  the University’s RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle, otherwise known as a drone, for a test flight over the Kennedy Ranch near Sarita, Texas on January 18, 2013.
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi engineering student Adam Ersepke and lab coordinator Jack Edward Esparza prepare for the take off of the University’s RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle, otherwise known as a drone, for a test flight over the Kennedy Ranch near Sarita, Texas on January 18, 2013.

Updated, Friday, May 17  3:50 p.m.:

Police officers, oil and gas pipeline inspectors, news photographers and movie producers would now all have access to drone footage under certain conditions in language added to legislation banning the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, which passed the Texas Senate on Friday. 

State Sen. Craig Estes, the Wichita Falls Republican who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber, said he worked on the compromise with several groups that had opposed the legislation, including the Texas Association of Broadcasters and the Texas Police Chiefs Association. 

Under the Senate's version of House Bill 912, authored by state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, law enforcement officers could use drones in a number of situations, including if they have a valid search or arrest warrant, are pursuing someone they have reasonable cause to suspect has committed a crime, and to search for a missing person. Energy companies would be able to use them for exploration, as well as to maintain and repair pipelines.

Estes also accepted an amendment from Sen. Rodney Ellis, R-Houston, that protects from retaliation those who film, record or photograph police officers on the job. 

If the lower chamber does not agree with the Senate amendments, the bill will head to conference committee, where lawmakers will work out their differences.

Original Story:

A ban on the use of unmanned aerial drones moved one step closer to passage Monday, when a Senate panel approved House Bill 912 by Lance Gooden, R-Terrell.

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, sponsor of the bill, said that although the measure "already has so many exemptions in it, it's like Swiss cheese," he would work with law enforcement and the media to create additional legal uses for drones. He said he would address those concerns before taking the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. But a representative of prosecutors told the committee that the bill already has so many exceptions that it would likely never result in a conviction.

The bill, which has more than 80 co-authors in the House, would make it a Class C misdemeanor to use an “unmanned vehicle or aircraft” to capture video or photographs of private property without the consent of the property’s owner or occupant. It would also create an additional penalty for someone who displays or distributes an image or video captured by an illegally operating drone.

The measure already contains exemptions for cases in which law enforcement needs to use a drone to save someone in imminent danger or they have an arrest warrant for the person they are filming who may have committed a felony. But Jennifer Wichmann, an Arlington city official speaking for the police department, said that exceptions are needed for the use of drones to investigate any crime, not just felonies. 

Before passing the measure last week, the House rejected an amendment by state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, that would have provided a broad exemption from the regulations for law enforcement. Estes stopped short of endorsing that amendment, but said that law enforcement representatives could come to his office "anytime" to make sure "they are able to do their job."

The Texas Association of Broadcasters also asked for an amendment to exempt "bonafide news organizations" who may use drones to capture footage of traffic, wildfires or hurricane damage. "It would be used the same way a helicopter is used today, but at far less expense," said Stacy Allen, the association's legal counsel. He said courts should be charged with balancing privacy rights and the First Amendment rights of journalists.

"What about a movie star sunbathing in her backyard by the pool?" Estes asked Allen, who said that since this would be private property, it would likely still be protected by the bill and that none of his clients could be considered the "paparazzi."

Estes responded with a grin, "Nobody in the press has been involved with the paparazzi, have they?"

This prompted Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, to tell the committee, "I don't know of a single one of our 500 members who are interested in taking pictures of sunbathing celebrities."

The number of exemptions already in the bill is "unprecedented," said Shannon Edmonds, who studies legislation for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. "Basically this is never going to get prosecuted," he explained, because judges are not going to be able to sort out the subtle differences between legitimate and illegitimate drone uses. 

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, offered the only vote against the bill. After the hearing, he cited opposition from the San Antonio Police Department, which argued that the bill was too broad and could limit the use of bomb-defusing robots.  

"I'm going to side with the experts, and those folks are the experts," Uresti said.

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