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Bellone vetoes bill restricting drone use in Suffolk on grounds of First Amendment rights

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks at a

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks at a podium in this undated photo. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has vetoed a resolution to restrict use of camera-bearing drones in county parks and around county buildings because it violates the public's First Amendment rights and "there is no right to privacy in a public space."

But the county executive, in light of well-publicized problems with drones, said lawmakers could revise the bill because they "have the right" to impose restrictions to prevent "unreasonable use of drones" to protect public safety.

Bellone called the legislation "well-intentioned," but its "fundamental flaw" is that it tries to use privacy rights as a basis for drone restrictions.

"Attempting to create a zone of privacy where none ever existed, this legislation unconstitutionally infringes on one of our most cherished civil liberties -- our right to free press and speech," he said.

The local law, which was approved 15-2 with one abstention, would have barred flights of any unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with a camera above any county facility without authorization of the public works commissioner, and would have banned flights over county parks without a permit issued by the county parks department. The measure also would have banned flights over county beaches from May 15 to Sept. 15 each year in an effort to protect beachgoers' privacy.

Sponsor Legis. Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) said he disagrees with Bellone's view but is willing to work with him to revise the law rather than seek a veto override. "He sees the value of the bill and we are going to sit down to repair it and make it based more on public safety," Muratore said, adding that he will ask Bellone for a certificate of necessity to allow an immediate vote once a new bill is ready.

"I'm not looking to infringe on anyone's right. I'm just looking for a little accountability," Muratore said.

Bellone, a father of three, said he expressed sympathy with "concerns of a family who wish to go to the beach . . . and find the notion of an overhead drone recording their activity on the beach disturbing." But he said there are no restrictions for those with cellphones taking pictures in county parks.

While the original legislation also carved out an exception -- allowing those with valid media passes to use drones -- Bellone said that "does not fix the problem . . . because it is not just news organizations who have a First Amendment right to make and display photographs or videotapes of public events. We all do."

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), the GOP caucus leader, disagreed with Bellone's position and believes lawmakers would override the veto if it went to a vote.

"People I've talked to disagree because they are concerned about their privacy and don't expect anyone taking pictures of them from overhead," McCaffrey said.

However, co-sponsor Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) said it is better to fix the law rather than have it struck down in court. "The focus should be on safety rather privacy to avoid potential legal challenges," Spencer said.


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