A bill quickly moving through California's state legislature that would limit drone surveillance was born out of fear that the paparazzi would use them to take surreptitious photos of celebrities.
California SB-15 passed through the California state senate in late May with a vote of 38-1 and appears headed for passage by the assembly sometime later this summer. As currently worded, the bill would make it illegal for private citizens to use drones to invade the privacy of someone else, would require law enforcement to get a search warrant to use a drone, and would open drone operators to civil lawsuits if they use a drone to invade privacy.
The bill's author, Sen. Alex Padilla, represents California's 20th District, which encompasses the San Fernando Valley and parts of Los Angeles. Padilla says he introduced the bill based on rumors that celebrity gossip website TMZ was interested in acquiring a drone to take photos and video.
"Frankly, that's the way this issue got on my radar, these unsubstantiated rumors about TMZ putting in an application for a drone license," Padilla says. "The paparazzi is enough as it is, I can't imagine how it'd be with drones hovering by restaurants and nightclubs."
Padilla says that the use of drones for photography purposes is "fundamentally different" than paparazzi using high-powered camera lenses from their cars or the sidewalk.
"You can imagine drones that are undetectable taking pictures of you while you're out for the evening or you're in your home with these things hovering over your yard," he says. "It's much more discrete and has a much higher possibility of compromising your reasonable expectation of privacy."
Mickey Osterreicher, an attorney with the National Press Photographers Association, says the bill has the same problem as several other anti-paparazzi statutes, which the organization says infringe on photojournalists’ First Amendment rights.
"I think paparazzi is a pejorative term and the public writes them off as not counting as photographers," Osterreicher says. "This bill has language that is so broad that it infringes on First Amendment protected activities."
Osterreicher takes particular issue with language in the bill that would create a "constructive invasion of privacy" if drones were used "in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person."
"That leaves itself open to a lot of interpretation. What's reasonable to one person is not necessarily reasonable to another. If you're a movie star out on the street, you may think you have a right to be left alone. For most of us, when you're out in public, you don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy," he says. "I'd say this bill, as with so others, are feel-good laws proposed by legislators who are catering to their star constituency, and that's unfortunate."
The group also opposed a similar bill in Texas that would make it illegal to "monitor or conduct surveillance" with drones.
"We believe that [the Texas] bill will create a significant impediment to journalists and others who are engaged in constitutionally protected speech," Alicia Calzada, an attorney with the NPPA, wrote in a letter opposing the bill.
California isn't the only state considering drone legislation: Legislatures in Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia have all passed bills that would put at least some limits on drone use.
Even if paparazzi were to get their hands on a drone, unmanned aerial vehicles are illegal to use for commercial purposes until the Federal Aviation Administration sets guidelines for their use, a move that is expected to happen sometime in 2015.
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Updated 06/07/13, 5:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from the National Press Photographers Association.