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Push for N.J. laws to cover drones over schools, homes

(Shirley Min/WHYY, file)

(Shirley Min/WHYY, file)

Citing a need to ensure state law keeps up with the latest technology, more than a dozen legislators are backing a measure that would add drone operators to New Jersey’s trespassing and invasion of privacy statutes.

The bipartisan legislation would treat drones hovering over private property the same as a person physically entering the property without permission of the owner. It would also apply to using drones to photograph or videotape someone without consent when “a reasonable person would not expect to be observed.”

The bill is just the latest effort by lawmakers to update state regulations to address unmanned aircraft commonly called drones. Another bill advancing in the Assembly would prevent drone users from attaching firearms or other weapons to their devices. Legislation already signed into law made it illegal to use a drone while intoxicated or to spy on a correctional facility.

“As technology evolves, so too must the law,” said Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset), one of the bill’s sponsors. “By clarifying that using a drone to spy on your neighbor is in fact a crime, we can create a deterrent that is powerful enough to protect our residents from unknowingly falling victim to this harmful practice.”

1.3 million drones and counting

According to the state Department of Transportation, federal law requires someone who purchases a drone to register it with the Federal Aviation Administration if the device weighs more than 0.55 pounds. An estimated 1.3 million drones have been registered with the agency, federal officials said earlier this year.

While many people fly drones as a hobby, like model airplanes, their increased use has also raised a host of public-safety concerns. Just last month flights at Newark Liberty Airport were interrupted after pilots noticed potentially dangerous drone activity at nearby Teterboro Airport. The New York Police Department has also raised concerns about terrorists using weaponized drones.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that more Americans approve of using a drone at a park or beach than disapprove. But more than 50 percent of those surveyed said it should be against the law to fly a drone near someone’s home.

Eye in the sky

State lawmakers say their big concern is that a camera or recording device could be attached to a drone by someone seeking to spy on a neighbor or to take photos of them without their permission.

The legislation introduced last month establishes a fourth-degree criminal offense for someone who “operates an unmanned aircraft system for the purpose of observing another person without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect to be observed.” Using a drone for “peering into windows or other openings of dwelling places” would also be a crime under the proposed legislation.

The measure makes it a more serious, third-degree offense if someone “operates an unmanned aircraft system for the purpose of photographing, filming, videotaping, recording, or otherwise reproducing in any manner, the image of another person … without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect to be observed.”

It would also be a fourth-degree offense if someone “causes an unmanned aircraft system to enter or surreptitiously remain over” a dwelling or school. The offense would be upgraded to a third-degree crime if someone operating a drone allows it to “remain over any place as to which notice against trespass is given.” But the measure creates an exception for those whose actions were “solely incidental to the lawful commercial or educational use of the unmanned aircraft system.”

In all, 14 different lawmakers have signed up to sponsor the legislation, which has been assigned to the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee for an initial review. A similar law was enacted last year in Pennsylvania.

“The popular use of drones has warranted the need to clarify that flying a drone over private property without permission is still trespassing, and an invasion of privacy of anyone on that property,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), who chairs the Senate committee. “This legislation would provide the required amendment to ensure the privacy of property owners.”

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