Lawmakers To Decide If Law Enforcement Need A Warrant For Domestic Drone Use 

Should law enforcement need a warrant to spy on Mainers using domestic drones? That was the question before a legislative committee in Augusta Tuesday afternoon.A domestic drone is a stealth, unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with cameras and listening devices that are flown remotely. They vary in size and can be built as small as a mosquito and be operated with a smart phone. The retail price also varies but drones used by law enforcement and first responders cost roughly $10,000. “The technology is real. It is in America and it will inevitably come to Maine. Yet the laws will not kept up with this advancing technology until we put proper protections in place,” said Senator John Patrick, an Oxford County Democrat who sponsored legislation that would do just that. His bill would, among other things, force law enforcement to get a probable cause warrant before using a domestic drone to spy on unsuspecting Mainers. “Big brother is no longer the stuff of science fiction,” Patrick told the committee, saying he wants Maine lawmakers to be proactive on this issue.Patrick’s bill would do the following:* Regulate unmanned aerial vehicles, including their acquisition and lawful operation by law enforcement agencies in collecting, disclosing and receiving information and the retention of information collected. * For the permitted operation of an unmanned aerial vehicle, the bill requires the consent of the subject person, a warrant or court order, an emergency situation that threatens life or serious bodily injury or an emergency enforcement situation that threatens national security or convinces conspiratorial criminal conduct requiring immediate operation of the vehicle before a warrant can be obtained. * The bill also allows delayed service of a warrant or court order informing the subject person until after the warrant’s or order’s issuance if necessary for avoiding certain adverse results. *The bill provides for a private right of action or enforcement by the Attorney General for a violation and disallows the use of any information collected in violation as evidence in a hearing or court of law. * The bill requires the Attorney General to report certain information concerning the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to the Legislature and the Administrative Office of the Courts and for law enforcement agencies and the Attorney General to post certain information on their publicly accessible websites.These types of drones do have practical uses other than in combat or surveillance operations. They’re being used by law enforcement and first responders in fires and search and rescue operations. They’re also available online to private citizens, which caused some of the folks testifying and even some lawmakers a moment of uneasiness. “If I saw one of those things flying over my house I’d shoot it down,” said Representative Wayne Mitchell, an Indian Island Democrat. Patrick says he’s willing to consider adding restrictions for private citizens in the bill to keep someone, for example, from spying on their neighbor. “Well I think that’s part of the question. Should we take a look at private as well as other uses of drones.”The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine supports Patrick’s bill. The ACLU of Maine says several other state legislatures are considering bills to limit drone use, and Virginia has passed a law imposing a two-year moratorium on drone use.There were other issues raised at the hearing. Land surveyors spoke up to say drones are essential to their work. They don’t want language in the bill that would prevent them from getting their necessary aerial shots. “What has changed today is that aerial photography can be done more cheaply with a drone and more precisely with a drone because they can be programmed to fly more precise patterns,” Dan Bernier, an attorney representing land surveyors, told the committee. Law enforcement also weighed in, opposing the bill in it’s current form. But Lieutenant Colonel Ray Bessette of the Maine State Police says those at the Department of Public Safety and the Maine Attorney Generals Office are willing to work with lawmakers on it. “We agree with the sponsors of this bill that protecting the privacy of our citizens is a significant cornerstone of our duties as public servants,” Bessette told the committee. “However, we also believe there’s more to be done in order to craft a more comprehensive approach to this challenge.”The bill heads to a work session where it’s likely to go through some changes before it reaches a vote.