Texas Legislature Passes Private Drone Ban, But Promises Many Politically-charged Exceptions

ImageBy Chelsey Heindel

This week, the Texas legislature passed the “Texas Privacy Act,” a bill that would prohibit private drone usage within the state.

Passing the state Senate 26-5 and House of Representatives 140-4, House Bill 912 would classify drone usage “with the intent to conduct surveillance” as a Class C misdemeanor. The proposal specifically targets private individuals using drones to document “an individual or privately owned real property.”

If Republican Gov. Rick Perry authorizes the proposed law, Texas would be the third state to ban private drone usage: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell agreed to a two year moratorium on drones in February, and Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed a privacy-oriented drone restriction into law last month.

Unlike Virginia and Idaho, though, Texas is geographically and politically oriented towards far more than individual privacy rights.

Texas House Bill 912 contains more than 40 exemptions. Many of these exemptions, including photographs obtained with permission by the owner or lawful occupant of real private property images obtained pursuant to a valid search or arrest warrant, ensure that “innocent” drone usage remains, well, innocent. Even intentional violators may avail themselves of an exemption that foregoes a $500 fine if, upon receiving a violation notice, the violator destroys the prohibited images.

Far less common exemptions include images produced by members of the media in the course of breaking news coverage and images acquired “by the owner or operator of an oil, gas, water, or other pipeline.”

Perhaps the most politically contentious exemption is one that renders the drone ban inapplicable to residents and real property located within 25 miles of the United States-Mexico border. Describing the exemption’s purpose, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) told the Houston Chronicle, “Our legislative intent was to have law enforcement be able to use drones. . . . We don’t want private citizens to be able to use drones at the border, either.”

The border exemption, coupled with an “aerial surveillance” exemption, may fuel already ignited passions regarding the current immigration reform stalemate preoccupying the U.S. Congress.

Lawmakers in 36 states have recently introduced legislation intended to restrict or prohibit domestic drone use by both private and public entities. Moreover, 31 states are currently considering drone-specific privacy laws.

The “Texas take” on drone prohibitions says as much about privacy concerns as it does about the widespread and multi-purpose utility provided by unmanned aerial vehicles. House Bill 912 may bolster a sense of personal security and privacy for Texans statewide. However, exempting natural resource businesses, media agents, first responders, and the entire Texas-Mexico border reveals the more likely consequences of future drone bans: the individual right to privacy exists, up until the point where privacy becomes political.

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