What Chula Vista’s legal battle over police drones means for CA

When La Prensa publisher and longtime Chula Vista resident Art Castañares first filed a public records request to review police drone video footage in 2021, he wanted to “see how police are using the new drones and whether they potentially violate people’s privacy rights as they fly over thousands of city homes.”

Chula Vista officials resisted, leading to a lengthy legal battle. This spring, the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case, essentially upholding an appeals court ruling that the city’s blanket refusal to prevent the public from accessing drone video was overbroad. A San Diego Superior Court judge initially sided with Chula Vista before the case was taken to the 4th District Court of Appeal.

The implications of this lawsuit could impact more than a dozen California cities that are already using or exploring drones as first responders.

“Our lawsuit created a statewide legal precedent that improves public access to police data, which agencies have sought to protect from disclosure,” Castañares said in an interview.

Castañares is not the only one concerned. Verónica Marquez, a high school teacher and 34-year-old Chula Vista resident, also expressed her concerns. In the past six months, drones have passed over her house or within two blocks at least 15 times for various reasons. The calls ranged from “unknown” problems and reports of suspicious vehicles to serious matters such as an “assault with a deadly weapon.”

“I think the public should have access to video footage,” Marquez told me. “It makes me distrust the police even more because if they had nothing to hide, they wouldn’t prevent access.”

During a phone call, David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, said: “Drone images are no different in the rules of disclosure. There is no exception for drones.”

A friend of the court brief filed jointly by Loy’s organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, warned that the court’s interpretation “will undermine public understanding and oversight of the use of new technologies by would blunt law enforcement beyond the drone program in question. in this (administration) request.”

Chula Vista, the second-largest city in San Diego County, became the first U.S. city to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones at low altitudes and beyond the visual line of sight in the national airspace. Every month, Chula Vista police send drones to hundreds of 911 calls, and since March 2021 from at least five launch sites, including a community college and two hospitals.

“The impact of our case affects not only Chula Vista police drone videos, but every government agency that uses unmanned aircraft systems”

Art Castañares, publisher la prensa

Like Chula Vista, numerous California cities have contracted with Flying Lion, a private company that specializes in developing first-responder drone programs, including Redondo Beach, Irvine, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and others. Seemingly every corner of the state has implemented or started a drone program, from Hemet, Costa Mesa, Orange County and Fullerton to Elk Grove, San Ramon and Fremont.

The Beverly Hills Police Department already uses their drones for hours of surveillance as part of their “ubiquitous coverage” of city limits. The Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association has advocated for expanded use of surveillance technologies and linking data collection to drones, “such as public safety cameras or satellite feeds and (license plate readers) and enhanced by analytical technologies such as facial recognition software or other (artificial intelligence),” CBS reported 8.

Chula Vista residents criticized city officials four years ago after the San Diego Union-Tribune uncovered how police recklessly shared license plate information with immigration authorities. Marquez questioned the rationale for expanding data sharing among law enforcement agencies, especially those that enforce immigration laws.

“I understand that each entity has its own duties to perform, so the fact that they are sharing information with each other seems deceptive to me,” she said. “And doesn’t it violate people’s privacy – regardless of their immigration status?”

As a member of Chula Vista’s Technology and Privacy Task Force, I participated in a briefing with the city’s police department two years ago where they presented several tools with surveillance capabilities, including their drone program. At the time, a senior officer assured us that the plane had tilted its camera upwards to reduce the chance of accidentally capturing private property en route to an incident.

But if law enforcement’s first instinct is to withhold footage, how can we be sure? Other police departments could also deliberately integrate drone footage with other surveillance technologies – as the LA County Police Chiefs Association advocates – without considering parallel policies to ensure transparency and accountability.

So as police increasingly rely on drones as a new force multiplier, is there the same excitement for protecting privacy and civil rights, especially when private industry is a driving force?

Chula Vista police officers have become ambassadors for their drone program. In March, Police Chief Roxanne Kennedy was a panelist at the World Police Summit in Dubai, where she promoted the program on a global stage. She is also a member of the advisory board for the 10th edition of the Commercial UAV Expo, scheduled for later this year in Las Vegas.

The proliferation of drone response programs is big business. Several former Chula Vista police officers, who were instrumental in developing the city’s program, now work in the private sector and are helping to expand this technology.

Given the forces at work, it is clear that La Prensa’s lawsuit will have far greater ramifications than just the potential disclosure of video footage in Chula Vista. For Castañares, he believes “the impact of our case affects not only Chula Vista Police drone videos, but also every government agency that uses unmanned aircraft systems.”

In this case, at least, the state Supreme Court correctly ruled that the law of the land should be more nuanced, with more room for transparency and accountability, so that police departments using drone technology in California do not rush to circumvent privacy rights in their zeal to to expand supervision.