A Senate committee unanimously advanced legislation that would regulate drones used for surveillance by law enforcement agencies in Utah.
SB16702 would require law officers to obtain a warrant, except in cases where courts have said it is acceptable to proceed without one, to gather or use data collected by an unmanned aerial vehicle. The proposal, now headed for consideration in the full Senate, also stipulates when agencies can keep data gathered on a subject other than one specified as a surveillance target. Additionally, agencies would have to report their drone usage annually to the Department of Public Safety and post it on their websites.
Bill sponsoring Sen. Howard Stephenson said U.S. law enforcement is increasing the use of drones and the vehicles can be an important tool for law enforcement to protect citizens and officers. However, he believes protections need to be in place to protect citizens’ privacy.
"We believe that rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a surveillance society," the Draper Republican said.
In 2013, 43 states considered legislation dealing with unmanned aerial vehicles mainly dealing with privacy issues, Stephenson said, adding that Utah should follow the example of nine states who passed laws. He argued it is important for states to enact restrictions because the courts are slow to catch up to technology in their interpretations of the Constitution.
Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian Libertas Institute, said the military has drones the size of mosquitoes and it is only a matter of time before similar technology is available to businesses and local governments. Privacy protections are important because people change their behavior and censor themselves when they know they are being watched.
He said drones are an acceptable tool as long as agencies have a warrant and are going after a specific person suspected of a crime.
"I think it is very wise to preemptively enact privacy protections consistent with the Fourth Amendment and probable cause and obtaining a warrant," Boyack said. "I don’t think that this is saying that law enforcement have used these and that there have been problems. I see this as a very proactive step."
Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires said drones can help to protect law enforcement officers and public safety. Unmanned aerial vehicles can help officers locate suspects in open areas and the state has used remote controlled helicopters to photograph traffic accidents to help reopen highways.
"There are such great applications for this technology, but in my position I also consider myself and my responsibilities to be a careful steward of our Fourth Amendment rights and so I appreciate this legislation and the guidelines it provides," Squires said.
Stephenson said his bill does not intend to impede the state from developing or investing in beneficial drone use such as commercial or research and development, but to put restrictions on law enforcement. He said the Governor’s Office of Economic Development asked him to include language, which may be added later, ensuring that the state wants the economic benefits from drone research and manufacturing.
"We see that as a positive thing because of the wonderful things that can be done to protect our citizens and our law enforcement officers," Stephenson said.
Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said the proposal will make drone development in the state easier and prevent occurrences such as a proposed ordinance in Deer Trail, Colo., that would allow residents to buy a license to hunt drones.
"I think this kind of legislation on the state level will reassure citizens that their privacy is being protected and that they don’t need to take matters into their own hands or be fearful if they see a drone engaged in legitimate activity," Lowe said.
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