Spy drone ban draws support

Wednesday, February 6, 2013
A Predator drone unmanned aerial vehicle takes off in October 2007 on a U.S. Customs Border Patrol mission from Fort Huachuca, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin ~ Associated Press, file)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A Missouri proposal to ban spy-in-sky drones drew support from agricultural groups and civil liberties advocates Tuesday, though some lawmakers remained skeptical, calling it an overreaction to futuristic fears of snooping.

Legislation by Rep. Casey Guernsey would outlaw the use of unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance on individuals or property. It would grant an exception only for law enforcement agencies that obtain a warrant.

"It's important for us to prevent Missouri from sliding into a police-type state," said Guernsey, R-Bethany, who is chairman of the House Agri-Business Committee that heard testimony on the bill Tuesday.

The committee could vote on the legislation next week.

Guernsey said his legislation was prompted by concerns over an Environmental Protection Agency initiative that used small airplanes to look for pollution problems at cattle farms in Iowa and Nebraska. Last summer the EPA said it had conducted or planned to make 22 flyovers in Iowa and Nebraska from 2010 through 2012. Agency staffers took photographs of animal waste running into waterways and, as of last summer, had taken more than 50 enforcement actions against livestock farmers as a result of the flights.

Guernsey's bill would not prohibit the EPA flights, because they were not conducted by drone aircraft. Guernsey said in an interview after the hearing that he opted against banning surveillance flights by piloted planes because of complications involving other aircraft laws.

Some colleagues questioned whether the proposed drone ban was overreaching or unnecessary. Among other things, they pointed to a provision in the legislation allowing "any aggrieved party" to file a lawsuit to "obtain all appropriate relief" to prevent or stop surveillance by drone aircraft.

Rep. Steve Hodges questioned who would have legal grounds to sue -- anyone who saw a drone in the sky or someone who must specifically prove that the drone flew over his property?

"How far are we going?" Hodges, D-East Prairie, asked.

Guernsey drew support from lobbyists for the American Civil Liberties Union, several agricultural organizations and the Missouri Family Network.

"In general, I don't think we're conspiracy theorists or black-helicopter people," said Don Steen, a lobbyist for the Missouri Farm Bureau. But he said organization members recently approved a resolution opposing aerial surveillance except for national security.

Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network, cited concerns that drones built in people's garages could be used to spy on their neighbors like "peeping Toms" or could be used for "corporate espionage."

Lawmakers in at least 11 states are looking at plans to restrict the use of drones in their skies amid concerns the unmanned aerial vehicles could be exploited to spy on Americans.

Concerns mounted after the Federal Aviation Administration began establishing safety standards for civilian drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and small in size.

Some police agencies have said the drones could be used for surveillance of suspects, search and rescue operations, and gathering details on damage caused by natural disasters.

In Montana, a libertarian-minded state that doesn't let police use remote cameras to issue traffic tickets, Democrats and Republicans are banding together to back proposals restricting drone use.

"I do not think our citizens would want cameras to fly overhead and collect data on our lives," Republican state Sen. Matthew Rosendale told a legislative panel Tuesday.

He is sponsoring a measure that would only let law enforcement use drones with a search warrant, and would make it illegal for private citizens to spy on neighbors with drones.

The full Montana Senate endorsed a somewhat broader measure Tuesday that bans information collected by drones from being used in court. It also would bar local and state government ownership of drones equipped with weapons, such as stunning devices.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the states won't be able to stop federal agencies or border agents from using drones.

Other state legislatures looking at the issue include California, Oregon, Texas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Florida, Virginia, Maine and Oklahoma.

A North Dakota lawmaker introduced a similar bill in January following the 2011 arrest of a Lakota farmer during a 16-hour standoff with police. A drone was used to help a SWAT team apprehend Rodney Brossart.

Its use was upheld by state courts, but the sponsor of the North Dakota bill, Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, said safeguards should be put into place to make sure the practice isn't abused.

Last year, Seattle police received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to train people to operate drones for use in investigations, search-and-rescue operations and natural disasters. Residents and the ACLU called on city officials to tightly regulate the information that can be collected by drones, which are not in use yet.

In Alameda County, Calif., the sheriff's office faced backlash late last year after announcing plans to use drones to help find fugitives and assist with search-and-rescue operations.

Associated Press reporters Matt Gouras and David A. Lieb contributed.

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