Suffolk Exec Vetoes County Ban on Drones With Cameras

A journalist fixes a drone used to film the riots in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 17, 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

Citing infringement of constitutional rights, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone vetoed a bill that would have regulated camera-equipped drones and banned the increasingly popular radio-controlled devices from flying over beaches during summer.

In his veto message to the Suffolk County Legislature, Bellone wrote that he found it “disturbing” that someone would want to record strangers in swimwear at the beach, but noted that it is “well-established” there is no right to privacy in public.

“In attempting to create a zone of privacy where none ever existed, this legislation unconstitutionally infringes on one of our most cherished civil liberties—our right to free press and speech,” Bellone wrote Friday.

The bill would have required camera-drone fliers to get written permission before using them over county buildings and would set a permitting process for such devices in parks—except for county contractors and members of the media with Suffolk County police-issued credentials. It also would have banned photo-drones from flying over county-run beaches from May 15 to Sept. 15, with violators facing up to $500 fines.

The legislature had passed the bill by a vote of 15-2 with one abstention last month. One of the two bills co-sponsors, Suffolk County Legis. Thomas Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), a former police officer, was disappointed in the veto. The other co-sponsor, Legis. Dr. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a pediatrician, said he would like to work with Bellone to fix the bill so that it will address public safety.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said Monday that a revised version of the bill is already in the works.

“The county executive’s staff is working with Legislator Muratore to revise the bill to better address the public safety issue that drones present,” Gregory said in a statement. “I look forward to reviewing the amended version of the bill.”

RELATED STORY: Long Island Drone Sightings Rise as Regulations Debate Takes Off

Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of New York Civil Liberties Union, had urged Bellone to veto the bill.

“Existing and criminal court laws—such as trespassing, harassment, invasion of privacy, stalking and intentional infliction of emotional distress—can appropriately address any unlawful conduct that one can derive from drones,” Sinha said. “Suffolk County need not violate its residents’ constitutional rights because of the unknowns of emerging technology.”

Bellone essentially agreed with Sinha’s statement that the legislature’s attempt to resolve the First Amendment issues by creating an exception for the media was flawed because the right to freely photograph in public isn’t limited to the media, it includes the public. The county executive signaled that he would be open to signing a revised version of the bill that focused on public safety rather than privacy.

“It would not be beyond its authority for this legislature to enact such restrictions to further public safety in this county,” Bellone wrote. “A review of recent news articles relating to drones highlights the dangers posed by the unreasonable use of drones, and perhaps further regulation of drones is necessary to ensure our public safety, which, as always, is my top priority. But, the fundamental flaw with this legislation is embedded in its name, ‘A Local Law to Protect Privacy in Suffolk County.’ In other words, this legislation is unmistakable in its intent to protect privacy, rather than public safety.”

The Press recently reported that authorities have received calls of at least 20 drones in Long Island skies in recent years, half of them in Suffolk, including one over a U.S. Coast Guard Station in June and another that scared a small plane pilot destined for Long Island MacArthur Airport last summer.

The debate over how to regulate drones comes as the towns of Huntington and Hempstead as well as the Village of Saltaire all consider similar legislation. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to release new drone rules next year.

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