Wash. bill would restrict buying, deploying drones

April 27, 2012: Seattle Police officer Reuben Omelanchuk is at the controls of the department's new, small radio-controlled Draganflyer X6 drone with a camera attached, in Seattle.

April 27, 2012: Seattle Police officer Reuben Omelanchuk is at the controls of the department's new, small radio-controlled Draganflyer X6 drone with a camera attached, in Seattle.  (AP)

A new bill introduced by a Republican lawmaker in Olympia would put strict restrictions on how law enforcement agencies and state departments can buy and deploy aerial drones.

Rep. David Taylor's proposal was introduced Friday, a day after Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn ordered the city's police department to abandon its nascent drone program, which had received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration but was awaiting the go-ahead from the City Council.

Taylor's extensive bill covers the purchase of drones, data collection by the unmanned aerial vehicles, search warrant requirements and mandated audits.

The Moxee lawmaker worked for about two months on the measure, which would regulate drones for both law enforcement and state agencies, such as the Department of Ecology or the Department of Transportation.

"One reason to write this bill was to open dialogue," Taylor said. "We need to understand where we're heading."

Lawmakers in at least 11 states are looking at plans to restrict the use of drones over their skies amid concerns the vehicles could be exploited to spy on Americans. Concerns have increased since the FAA began establishing safety standards for civilian drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and small in size.

The Seattle Police Department bought two Draganflyer X6 vehicles through a federal grant without public input. The Draganflyer X6 vehicle is 36 inches wide and is 33.5 inches long, and stand just under a foot.

Taylor's bill immediately gained the backing of the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which spearheaded the opposition to Seattle police drones.

"Aerial drones can provide law enforcement agencies with unprecedented capabilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people's privacy," ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said in an email.

So far Taylor's bill has only Republican backers, but that's expected to change. Across the country, opposition to the use of domestic drones has come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, including civil liberties advocates and those worried about government intrusion.

Taylor's measure would require legislative approval from local or state lawmakers before a corresponding police agency obtains a drone, meaning a city council would have to vote before its police department could acquire a drone.

Under the bill's provisions, an agency must have a warrant to use a drone unless there are exigent circumstances, such as search and rescue or hostage situations. Such situations still would require retroactive warrants.

The measure calls for deletion of data gathered within 30 days if no criminal activity is recorded. It requires erasing data collected from people who are not the target of a drone deployment within 24 hours. It also calls for an annual report from law enforcement agencies and courts showing how drones have been used, as well as an annual audit for each agency that uses drones.

Taylor said the bill is aimed at protecting privacy and reducing the liability of any Washington agencies that use the vehicles.

He added that should the bill get a hearing in committee, he expects to hear from law enforcement agencies on how they would use drones.

On Monday, the Charlottesville City Council in Virginia passed a resolution imposing a two-year moratorium on the use of drones within city limits. The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group behind the city's effort, said Charlottesville was the first city in the country to limit the use of drones by police.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security drones do enter Washington airspace occasionally, patrolling the Canadian border east of the Cascade mountains. The two, 10,000-pound Predator-B unmanned aircraft are based in North Dakota.