Wyoming considers restricting police use of drones

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Wyoming lawmakers are considering a bill to ban law enforcement use of drones without a warrant.

Members of the Wyoming Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee are set to hear a draft bill this week in Laramie. If it's approved, the full Legislature could consider the measure early next year.

Linda Burt is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Wyoming. Burt says it's important for the state to set limits on the use of drones before they become more prevalent in law enforcement.

Legislative staffers drafted the bill the committee is set to consider at its meeting Thursday working from a model bill Burt presented to the committee earlier.

"Basically what it does is it asks that before any law enforcement uses a drone for any kind of searches that they get a warrant based on probable cause," Burt said.

Burt noted that the California Legislature recently passed similar measures now awaiting action by Gov. Jerry Brown.

One California bill would expand invasion-of-privacy statutes to include paparazzi photographers pursuing celebrities with drones in their homes and backyards. Another measure would establish restrictions on the government's use of drones for surveillance.

"Most people are looking at the fact that they want government entities to have that kind of authority before they do searches with drones," Burt said.

"Because drones have such an incredible capability -- they can be as tiny as a fly, or as big as a plane -- we know that they're going to be used extensively in different kinds of law enforcement endeavors," Burt said.

Byron Oedekoven is executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. He said the courts have ruled that police can act on information they can see from an airplane and says his group believes rules for drones should be no more restrictive.

"What we have proposed is looking at this, saying, `Let's step back from paranoia and let's look at drones from the standpoint of what can we do now with an airplane,"' Oedekoven said.

Oedekoven said requiring law enforcement to get a warrant to use drones wouldn't make sense. He said that if law enforcement officers already had probable cause to believe a person had committed a crime, they could get a search warrant for their premises and skip the drone process entirely.

"The standard is high enough that if I meet that standard, I don't have to have an unmanned aerial vehicle, I can just go do it," Oedekoven said.

Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, is co-chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee and a lawyer who works for Teton County.

Gingery said he believes committee members support the idea of requiring law enforcement to secure a warrant from a judge before using drones for surveillance.

"Everybody was good with that, because if you have a pretty good reason, and you can explain to a judge why you need a warrant, go ask the judge for a warrant," Gingery said.

"I think this is just the beginning of more bills coming, because as these get smaller and smaller, and people are using these in odd places, not just flying over you but flying into your home, or flying near windows, that's going to get harder and harder to understand," Gingery said of the drone issue.

Gingery noted that the National Park Service has cited several people for using drones in Yellowstone National Park this summer.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis this summer directed superintendents to write rules prohibiting drones from launching, landing or operating in the service's 401 parks.