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Banning spying by drones runs into turbulence

Published March 11, 2014 9:14 pm

Grounded • Bill put on hold while backers research questions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A bill to ban government spying with aerial drones flew into turbulence Tuesday, grounding debate while supporters answer questions — including whether someone can legally shoot at a drone hovering in their backyard.

"I think that's legal in rural Utah," Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said only half-jokingly. "If there's flying thing in your backyard and it's coming down and looking in your windows and taking pictures of things in your house, how is that any different than a burglar in your backyard?"

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, sponsor of SB167, has said the measure would allow law-enforcement agencies to use drones for surveillance on someone only when they have a warrant. It has exceptions for life-threatening situations and emergencies such asin the event of an earthquake or flood.

House members questioned how far the ban may reach.

When asked if it may prohibit using drones from regular patrol duty, similar to what is done by police helicopters, Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Lehi, the House sponsor of the bill, said he believed it would.

Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Roy, said he sees no difference between a police helicopter with a pilot in the sky, and a drone with a pilot on the ground — except using a drone would be much cheaper and more safe. So he opposed the bill.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said he believes it goes too far because people do not have an expectation of privacy in public places, and drones take pictures generally of public places.

But Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said, "I don't expect to put a dome over my backyard to protect that expectation of privacy." Still, he supported the bill, saying it appears to target spying surveillance on a specific individual, rather than general patrol or pursuit done now by helicopters.

Roberts accepted the suggestion to pull the bill temporarily from debate, and research and answer the questions before the Legislature adjourns Thursday night.