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Senate Bill 291- Law Enforcement Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Photo of Nathanial Kuratomi

As unmanned aircrafts or "drones" become more accessible with wider ranges of uses to the general public, we can expect the use of unmanned aircrafts by law enforcement agencies to increase. It is easy to see the benefits: assisting in criminal investigations, collecting evidence, and conducting surveillance, to name a few. But just as we expect law enforcement agencies to honor and respect our constitutional rights when conducting "traditional" forms of police work, we should also expect law enforcement agencies to deploy unmanned aircrafts in the course of their work in a constitutionally permissible manner. Senate Bill No. 291 was introduced on January 13, 2016 with the purpose of establishing procedures for the use of unmanned aircraft systems by law enforcement, and seeks to strike a balance between their use and our expectations of privacy as citizens.

The proposed legislation flatly prohibits the use of unmanned aircraft systems by law enforcement agencies unless the drone is used to collect evidence pursuant to a properly issued warrant (or some judicially recognized exception). As introduced, S.B. 291 permits a law enforcement agency to deploy unmanned aircraft in order to assist with criminal investigations, but only after it has established procedures for the use of drones, including obtaining necessary permits from the FAA, training and certifying officers in the operation of unmanned aircrafts, and developing record-keeping systems for flights by unmanned aircraft systems. The legislation further provides that drones may not be used to conduct surveillance unless exigent circumstances exist, or in the course of an environmental or weather-related catastrophe.

The legislation does not speak to potential civil liability for municipalities or individual police officers under either state or federal law, but it is certainly likely that misuse of an unmanned aircraft by law enforcement could lead to civil claims in either state or federal court for violations of individuals' constitutional rights.

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