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Drone Surveillance Measure Soars Through House

UPDATED: State Rep. Lance Gooden’s bill to prevent unmanned drones from capturing indiscriminate surveillance won approval in the lower chamber on Friday.

Micheal Cincienne of Absolute Aerospace and Texas A&M Corpus Christi, engineering student Adam Ersepke, and lab coordinator Jack Edward Esparza carry the University’s RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle, otherwise known as a drone, back to the  command center after a test flight over the Kennedy Ranch near Sarita, Texas on January 18, 2013.

Updated May 10, 11 a.m.:

To prevent malicious spying and protect citizens' privacy, the House gave final approval to a bill on Friday that would make it a Class C misdemeanor to capture indiscriminate surveillance with an unmanned drone. The measure now moves to the Senate. 

Original story: State Rep. Lance Gooden’s bill to prevent unmanned drones from capturing indiscriminate surveillance — a measure that has more than 80 co-authors in the House — won preliminary approval in the lower chamber on Thursday.

House Bill 912, which passed to third reading with a voice vote, 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 be an additional penalty to possess, display or distribute an image or video captured by an illegally operating drone.

“All of this bill is to ensure our privacy rights are protected,” said Gooden, R-Terrell, explaining that the standards in the bill would protect citizens from malicious surveillance and “Big Brother” activities. “If you have legitimate purposes, maybe you want to watch your cattle or check on something across your property, this is not an issue.”

The bill has faced opposition from some law enforcement officials who suggested that local police departments and other authorities should be exempt from the measure. On Thursday, the House rejected an amendment by state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, that would have provided a broader law enforcement exception as long as the drones were being used for a legitimate purpose.

Gooden — who has worked closely with local authorities while the bill was in committee — resisted the exemption. He said the bill included exceptions that would allow police to use drones to document crime scenes, resolve a hostage situation or search for a missing person. Other modifications to the bill made in committee permit state authorities to use drones to survey the scene of a catastrophe, preserve public safety over a hazardous spill or assist firefighters.

“Let’s just scrap the Fourth Amendment and say you can monitor me at any time, as long as it’s legitimate,” Gooden quipped sarcastically while arguing against Villalba’s amendment. “At the end of the day, a blanket exemption defeats the purpose of the bill.”

The House adopted a variety of amendments to broaden the number of “what if” exemptions, such as a provision by state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, to exempt surveillance in connection with oil pipeline safety, port authorities or agricultural management.

An amendment by Gooden that would cap civil damages for violations of the law at $10,000 was also accepted. 

“If you’ve got a drone parked over someone’s house and you capture images of them without their permission, you could be liable for $5,000,” said Gooden. He added that if the person posted those illegal images online, the penalty goes up to $10,000.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, spoke against the bill, arguing that it “would basically cancel out about 100 years of existing procedural law.” He said the bill was too broad and would undermine existing federal and state laws on legitimate law enforcement activities. 

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Courts Criminal justice State government Lance Gooden Texas Legislature