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


Michael O. Moore

State senator, Millbury Democrat

State Senator Michael O. Moore
State Senator Michael O. Moore Handout

Not long ago it seemed drones were used exclusively for foreign military operations, but recent advances have made them affordable, easy to use, and increasingly common. In addition to aerial wedding videos and drone races on ESPN, law enforcement agencies have also embraced the technology to improve their public safety mission.

The responsible use of drones can be extraordinarily helpful as a surveillance tool in emergency situations and everyday criminal investigations. However, to protect our basic expectations of privacy, we need a common-sense system of rules outlining safe and lawful standards for government drone use. The solution must balance the obvious benefits of the technology within the established legal standards of privacy.


To monitor private phone calls or use other electronic surveillance, law enforcement must show probable cause that a search is justified to obtain a judicial warrant. This helps prevent limitless and indiscriminate scrutiny of conversations between private individuals. Under current law these provisions do not apply to the use of drones, which could similarly be used for indiscriminate surveillance of innocent citizens. The Legislature currently is considering bipartisan legislation that would place sensible limits on the use of drones by law enforcement.

The legislation requires government drones to be authorized by public safety personnel and the community, and that law enforcement must procure a warrant for drone surveillance in a criminal investigation. The bill includes clear and unambiguous exemptions for emergency scenarios, or when there is reasonable cause to believe that a person’s life or safety is in danger. This will allow for an unhindered response when a drone could be helpful to a tactical police operation. The restraints in the bill are fair and appropriate, applying long-established probable cause standards to drone use. Updating this law is in line with good police practices. It also protects civil liberties, making sure individuals can’t be scrutinized for religious, political, or business reasons. Other language limits the collection of information immaterial to the warrant.


It’s important for our law enforcement agencies to have the best tools available. Drones fit that description, and under a smart and reasonable set of rules we can maintain both public safety and personal privacy.


Robert Bongiorno

Bedford Police chief, Secretary of the Middlesex County Chiefs of Police Association

Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno
Bedford Police Chief Robert BongiornoHandout

Unmanned drones are an emerging technology that will change many segments of life. The responsible regulation of these widely available products is vital. But I have concerns about proposed legislation on Beacon Hill that would severely restrict police departments’ use of drones in our duties.

Regulations are necessary with any law enforcement tool; however I believe the proposed legislation concerning the use of drones by law enforcement agencies goes too far in restricting legitimate police department use of drones.

The legislation as it is worded would ban police from using drones except in rare circumstances. It would also require police officers to submit a detailed affidavit every time a drone is used for any purpose. I fear that this would create too much hesitation among police and prevent agencies from ever taking advantage of a potentially lifesaving tool. If a police officer has a tool that can help locate a missing child or Alzheimer’s patient, he or she should not have to justify its use to a bureaucracy. A drone can be deployed to dramatically improve the efficiency of a search, especially in low light conditions and in rough terrain. A drone can give police officers a bird’s-eye view of the landscape and can assist in locating a suspect in the same way that police helicopters do. However, drones can be acquired for hundreds of dollars instead of millions.


Finally, while I am a fervent supporter of civil rights, there is a legal standard in policing called “plain view.” For example, if we are searching for a gun and also find drugs, we can seize the drugs and take action. The act, as written, forbids police from using drone footage for anything other than its stated task. That is simply too restrictive.

Municipal police are not in the business of collecting random and invasive data on citizens. Drones will not change longstanding police doctrine. Whether by drone, helicopter, bicycle, or car, police officers are governed by a set of laws and principles that must be applied evenly. When we start making exceptions because a technology is still new and emerging, we set a dangerous precedent.

Last week’s argument: Should Massachusetts raise its alcohol taxes?

Yes: 35.94% (23 votes)

No: 64.06% (41 votes)

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.