Defense Lawyers Talk Florida Police Drone Use in Criminal Investigations

Narcotics detectives investigating Florida drug crimes in Miami-Dade recently employed a police drone to capture an alleged cocaine sale between a suspect and an undercover informant. According to The Miami Herald, this was a first in a criminal investigation. Its use had to be first approved by a judge in a case against a 31-year-old accused of numerous drug and weapons charges. Fort Lauderdale defense lawyers

Our Fort Lauderdale defense attorneys understand this news comes right as lawmakers in Florida are weighing whether to approve limited expansion of police drone use. Law enforcement agencies throughout the country have increased their purchases and use of drones as the technology has gotten cheaper – even as defense lawyers have raised concerns about civil rights and privacy intrusions.

The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College reports some 900 agencies in the U.S. (most of those law enforcement) purchased the lightweight, unmanned aerial devices in 2018. That number will soon be updated for 2019, and it’s expected to be much higher. Some police agencies anticipate that the use of drones by cops will someday be as ubiquitous as body cameras. But there is legitimate skepticism about the legality of these devices, particularly where agencies have declined to provide information to the public about their drone programs. For instance, police agencies in Southern California won’t release any details of their drone operations, despite one city claiming it has carried out more than 1,000 drone missions in a single year leading to well over 100 arrests.

Some departments have been criticized for flying drones over certain crowds of protesters, raising concerns about government spying.

The way police departments see it, they have long employed aerial video footage, primarily from planes and helicopters. But drones are a lot smaller, less expensive and easier to get quickly up in the air. However, our Fort Lauderdale defense lawyers would point out that drones have the potential to be much more invasive. They have the potential to fly into spaces like garages, backyards and near bedroom windows – places helicopters simply can’t reach.

F.S. 934.50 prohibits the use of police drones in Florida unless used to:

  • Prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property
  • Search for a missing person
  • Prevent a terrorist attack
  • Halt the imminent escape of a suspect
  • Stop the imminent destruction of evidence

The only exception to these being if authorities first obtain a warrant from a judge.

In 2019, state lawmakers weighed a bill that would have given police authority to use drones to record outdoor traffic and crime scenes or monitor crowds of 50 or more people without first getting a warrant. Although it passed in the House, it died in the Senate. A similar bill has been introduced again this year.

Police in Miami-Dade have eight drones, The Miami Herald reported. For the most part, they have been employed to video record crime scenes of outdoor murders.

In the drug trafficking investigation, police had arranged several drug buys through the information before they had gathered what they felt was adequate evidence to apply for a search warrant using a drone. A narcotics bureau spokesman for the department said the drone would allow the police to gather evidence while maintaining officer safety, given that the area where the alleged crimes were occurring were prone to gun violence and the suspect was believed to be armed.

With the footage gathered from the drone, authorities applied for a second search warrant to search the suspect’s home. That is when they reportedly discovered supplies of illegal weapons and drugs.

If you are arrested in South Florida and police have utilized a drone to gather evidence against you, our criminal defense team will be carefully examining whether their methods were in line with the law. If not, we can ask that evidence be suppressed.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

From above, Miami-Dade police drone recorded crack cocaine sale live. It’s a first, cops say, Jan. 16, 2020, By David Ovalle, The Miami-Herald

More Blog Entries:

Report: Hundreds Serving Time for Florida Drug Crimes No Longer Against the Law, Dec. 15, 2019, Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog