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Should Massachusetts require police to obtain search warrants to use drones for investigations?

AP Photo/Mike Stewart


Bradley H. Jones Jr.

Massachusetts House minority leader, North Reading Republican

Bradley H. Jones Jr.

One of the most fundamental legal protections enshrined in the US Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights is the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Under the Fourth Amendment, all citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy and cannot be subject to a search without a probable cause warrant.

The growing popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, presents a challenge to upholding personal privacy rights in Massachusetts because our state laws have not kept pace with this rapidly evolving technology. That may soon change.

Proposed legislation I am cosponsoring would require police to obtain a search warrant before using drones as part of a criminal investigation. Several other states – including Florida, Maine, North Dakota and Virginia – already have similar requirements in place, and Massachusetts residents should be able to enjoy these same protections.

Requiring warrants for drone surveillance would in no way hinder law enforcement’s ability to investigate suspected criminal activity. Rather, it would simply ensure that state and municipal police departments are following the same procedures they already use when conducting an investigation without the use of drone technology.


The proposed legislation contains a provision allowing drones to be used without a warrant in certain limited emergency situations, but only if there is “reasonable cause” to believe there is an imminent threat to the life or safety of a person, such as when a child goes missing. In these cases, the operator of the drone would be required to document the specific nature of the emergency, and a supervisor would need to file an affidavit detailing the reasons for the warrant-less emergency usage within 48 hours of the drone’s deployment.

The bill contains additional privacy protections by mandating drones be used only to collect data on the individual who is the actual subject of the warrant, and requiring any data collected on other individuals not targeted by the warrant be deleted within 24 hours.


Currently, only a handful of municipal police departments in Massachusetts have purchased drones, including Attleborough and Hanover, but that number is likely to increase in the future. Implementing statewide guidelines now, including a warrant requirement for conducting drone surveillance, is critical to ensuring residents’ civil liberties and civil rights are properly protected.


Edward G. Conley

Chief of Police, Manchester-by-the-Sea; former Chelsea police officer

Edward G. Conley Handout

As a local police chief, I stand opposed to legislation on Beacon Hill limiting police use of drones because it singles out and limits a specific technology — unmanned aerial vehicles — without truly safeguarding public privacy.

I imagine different scenarios where most would agree that the deployment of a drone makes perfect sense. Here in Manchester by-the-Sea, the circumstance of a boater overboard at night with no marine patrol nearby immediately comes to mind. Officers could quickly initiate a search with a low-cost, semi-autonomous drone equipped with thermal imaging. The drone would be able to provide real-time images to responding State Police and Coast Guard helicopter search crews.

Then I imagine the drone flying to the rescue scene, and as it travels over private property, the thermal camera captures images of a stabbing taking place.

The legislation now before lawmakers says that in the absence of a search warrant, police would not be able to use this footage of a crime. However, if the State Police helicopter flying to the same scene captures the footage, with even more powerful optical equipment, that footage would be admissible. Furthermore, if a police officer climbed a high building to look for the lost boater with a handheld thermal imaging device and captured the stabbing in plain view, that would also be admissible. Singling out drones from other means of capturing images doesn’t make sense.


There are measures that can be considered that are consistent with our current laws, would protect the public interest, and would allow the sensible deployment of drones. Some possibilities would include establishing data retention laws; subjecting footage captured by drones to public records disclosure rules; regulating the specific markings of drones used by law enforcement; and requiring police departments to maintain records of their deployments of drones. As police chiefs, we would use policy to control drone usage and adopt national best practices. Such policies could easily enable us to adapt to the rapid change in drone technology.

The lifesaving and crime-solving benefits of drones requires nimble internal policy and accountability rather than restrictive law. As well-meaning as this legislation may seem, the unintended consequences would have a real impact on effective public safety by limiting this 21st century tool.

Last week’s argument: Should the MBTA proceed with plans to privatize its Arborway, Lynn, and Quincy garages?

No: 68.75% (22 votes)

Yes: 31.25% (10 votes)

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at