The legislation, known as House Bill 912, makes using a drone for surveillance without prior consent of the individual a Class C misdemeanor, and distributing any images captured as a result of such activity a Class B misdemeanor. Under Texas law, a Class C misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up to $500, and a Class B misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, up to 180 days in jail, or both. The legislation also allows for civil penalties of up to $10,000 for those who improperly photograph or film on someone else’s private property with the intent to distribute and commit malice.
“The privacy and property rights of Texans, it is important that specific safeguards are put into place which govern the purpose and manner in which drones may be used,” said Lance Gooden, the bill’s author. “We didn't think that the Constitution gives someone the right to invade someone else's privacy.”
The law contains over 40 exemptions. For example, law enforcement are not bound by the new restrictions, and are seemingly unbound by the Fourth Amendment, as the law includes a broad exception that allows police to use drones without obtaining search warrants if they have probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing. The law also does not apply to news crews who are photographing or filming breaking news. Other exceptions allow for unregulated drone use within 25 miles of the Mexican border and for drone use by researchers.
“Any time you need that many exceptions to a bill, it's a sign you're going down the wrong road,” said Alicia Calzada, an Austin-based attorney and former photojournalist.
“Texas is really the outlier,” said Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the bill because it tips the balance of drone power in favor of the government.
Texas is the seventh state to pass drone use legislation. The Virginia legislature has ordered a two-year moratorium on drone use to study privacy implications, while Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, and Tennessee have restricted the use of drones. Of these, only Idaho restricts civilian use of drones in a similar manner to the new law in Texas.
From a philosophical libertarian perspective, limiting drone use is an infringement upon private property rights unless the drones are being used to infringe upon another person's private property rights. Also, it is logically inconsistent to grant rights to government agents which are denied to everyone else.