Huntington town lawmakers last week passed a law regulating drones, but its focus on protect privacy rights raised questions about whether it may violate the First Amendment.
The Huntington Town Board unanimously passed the resolution with no discussion on Oct. 6. Drone hobbyists spoke out against the measure during a public hearing in July, defending the increasingly popular radio-controlled unmanned aircraft. Civil liberties experts, who said they’re watching how they law will be enforced, called its provision requiring permission for drone photography in public “problematic.”
“I think there has to be a balance between people’s privacy rights…and [an] unfettered right to take pictures,” said Huntington Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson, who proposed the measure. He acknowledged that there is no right to privacy in public places, but said that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in certain places such as their backyards.
A spokeswoman for the Nassau County Legislature’s Republican majority has said lawmakers are similarly debating whether to propose drone regulations. So is the Town of Hempstead, Village of Saltaire on Fire Island and Federal Aviation Administration, which has estimated that drone sighting reports nearly tripled nationwide so far this year over 2014.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, citing the First Amendment right to take pictures in public places, this summer vetoed a bill the county legislature passed that would have improperly banned drone photography at county beaches. Bellone last month signed a revised version that simply created a permitting process to fly drones at county parks.
Under the Huntington law, drone operators would face fines up to $1,000 or up to 15 days in jail if they don’t get permission of the owner before flying the devices over private property. Drone operators would also need permission of the town before flying one over town property, but the law did not create a formal permitting process, Cuthbertson said.
Jason Starr, interim director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Suffolk chapter, told The Long Islander that he found requiring someone to have a permit to take pictures in the public space is “problematic.”
“We’ll have to see how the town will enforce the provision that requires prior permitting,” he told the newspaper.
“If they think it rises to that level and there’s going to be a suit about it, we’ll figure it out,” Cuthbertson said.
The law prohibits “imaging technology for aerial surveillance with an unmanned aircraft…having the capability of obtaining high-resolution photographs and/or video, or using any types of sensors, for the collection, retention or dissemination of surveillance data or information on individuals, homes, businesses or property at locations where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.” It also prohibits flying drones “near or over unprotected persons or moving vehicles at a height less than 25 feet.”
Among those who criticized Huntington’s drone regulation idea during a town board meeting in July was Dennis Andreas, president of Long Island Aero Modelers Association, a model airplane group that includes drone hobbyists.
“Model aircraft have been flying safely on Long Island for decades,” he said. “Education, not legislation, is the answer.”
Small drone sightings reported to local authorities saw a fivefold increase so far this year over all of last year on LI, according to FAA and local police, the Press exclusively reported last month. Of the more than 40 drone sightings reported by pilots, air traffic controllers and citizens in Nassau and Suffolk counties over the past two years, more than half were spotted in Suffolk.
Of 17 reports in Nassau over the past two years—four in 2014, 13 between Jan. 1 and Aug. 20 of this year—at least eight were in the Town of Hempstead, which borders John F. Kennedy International Airport, where pilots regularly report spotting drones.
Of the 23 in Suffolk in the same time span—two last year and 21 through August—most were scattered between the towns of Islip, Babylon, Riverhead, East Hampton and Southampton. Huntington officials did not specify how many drone sightings they’ve received, but none of those listed in the FAA data were from the northwestern Suffolk town.