States step up fight against use of surveillance drones by law enforcement

Published February 06, 2013

| FoxNews.com

Lawmakers in at least 11 states are proposing various restrictions on the use of drones over their skies amid concerns the unmanned aerial vehicles could be exploited by local authorities to spy on Americans.

Concerns mounted after the Federal Aviation Administration began establishing safety standards for civilian drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and small in size.

Some police agencies have said the drones could be used for surveillance of suspects, search-and-rescue operations, and gathering details on damage caused by natural disasters.

Virginia lawmakers on Tuesday approved a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by police and government agencies.

Proponents of the legislation say the unfettered use of drones could infringe on Virginians' privacy rights. The legislation was supported by the ACLU, the Tea Party Federation and agriculture groups, while several law enforcement organizations opposed the moratorium.

"Our founders had no conception of things that would fly over them at night and peer into their backyards and send signals back to a home base," said Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, a sponsor of the Senate bill.

In an attempt to address police concerns, legislators carved out exceptions for the use of drones in emergencies, or to search for missing children or seniors.

The General Assembly action came a day after the Charlottesville City Council passed a resolution imposing a two-year moratorium on the use of drones within city limits and urging the General Assembly to pass regulations.

The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group behind the city's effort, said Charlottesville is the first city in the country to limit the use of drones by police.

In Montana, a libertarian-minded state that doesn't even let police use remote cameras to issue traffic tickets, Democrats and Republicans are banding together to back multiple proposals restricting drone use. They say drones, most often associated with overseas wars, aren't welcome in Big Sky Country.

"I do not think our citizens would want cameras to fly overhead and collect data on our lives," Republican state Sen. Matthew Rosendale told a legislative panel on Tuesday.

Rosendale is sponsoring a measure that would only let law enforcement use drones with a search warrant, and would make it illegal for private citizens to spy on neighbors with drones.

The full Montana Senate endorsed a somewhat broader measure Tuesday that bans information collected by drones from being used in court. It also would bar local and state government ownership of drones equipped with weapons, such as stunning devices.

The ACLU said the states won't be able to stop federal agencies or border agents from using drones. But the Montana ban would not allow local police to use criminal information collected by federal drones that may be handed over in cooperative investigations.

The drones could be wrongly used to hover over someone's property and gather information, opponents said.

"The use of drones across the country has become a great threat to our personal privacy," said ACLU of Montana policy director Niki Zupanic. "The door is wide open for intrusions into our personal private space."

Other state legislatures looking at the issue include California, Oregon, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Florida, Virginia, Maine and Oklahoma.

In Texas, State Rep. Lance Gooden, a Republican, introduced 'The Texas Privacy Act,' a bill that would ban the use of drones over private property, according to MyFoxAustin.com.

Gooden said the legislation is necessary because of the growing privacy concerns over the aircraft, which he says are getting smaller and cheaper, according to the report.

"The drones that are coming out today, they're very small. They're cheaper. In four to five years everyone can have these," Gooden told MyFoxAustin.com.

A Missouri House committee looked at a bill Tuesday that would outlaw the use of unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance on individuals or property, providing an exclusion for police working with a search warrant. It drew support from agricultural groups and civil liberties advocates.

"It's important for us to prevent Missouri from sliding into a police-type state," said Republican Rep. Casey Guernsey of Bethany.

A North Dakota lawmaker introduced a similar bill in January following the 2011 arrest of a Lakota farmer during a 16-hour standoff with police. A drone was used to help a SWAT team apprehend Rodney Brossart.

Its use was upheld by state courts, but the sponsor of the North Dakota bill, Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, said safeguards should be put into place to make sure the practice isn't abused.

Last year, Seattle police received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to train people to operate drones for use in investigations, search-and-rescue operations and natural disasters. Residents and the ACLU called on city officials to tightly regulate the information that can be collected by drones, which are not in use yet.

In Alameda County, Calif., the sheriff's office faced backlash late last year after announcing plans to use drones to help find fugitives and assist with search and rescue operations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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