Vt. Considers Bill to Prohibit Drones

Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, holds a remote-controlled helicopter, similar to smaller unmanned drones that law enforcement agencies across the country are seeking to acquire. (VTDigger.org - Andrew Stein)

Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, holds a remote-controlled helicopter, similar to smaller unmanned drones that law enforcement agencies across the country are seeking to acquire. (VTDigger.org - Andrew Stein)

Montpelier — A growing number of law enforcement agencies around the country are using unmanned, aerial drones — from Mesa County, Colo., to Lakota, N.D., and beyond.

Anticipating the spread of drones to Vermont, a group of lawmakers spanning the political spectrum introduced a bill last week that would place controls on how Vermont law enforcement officials use the surveillance machines.

“It’s a safety question around privacy,” said state Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, who spearheaded the bill. “Without having regulations, they can capture whatever (images) they want, and the technology is there.” House bill 540 would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before using a drone, except in an emergency situation where there could be “an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to any person.” In such cases, law enforcement would need to obtain a warrant within 48 hours after the drone’s use.

The legislation would prohibit drones with weapons and the use of facial recognition on all people except targets. HB540 would also mandate strict reporting of drone use.

Allen Gilbert, director of Vermont’s American Civil Liberties Union, has been following the progression of domestic drone use since 2011, when the federal government began flying training missions over the Adirondacks.

“It’s technology. It’s valueless. It’s all how it’s used,” Gilbert said. “Technology can be used for good things and bad things, and what the bill is trying to do is make sure that drones are not misused by police.” To effectively control drones, Gilbert said, the information that the flying vehicles catalog must be strictly regulated.

“This is a machine that’s never off,” he said. “It’s collecting information whether you want it collecting or not. The question is: What happens to those images?” Keith Flynn, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, is concerned that the legislation is too narrow in scope and would prohibit using drones for uses other than crimes. He also indicated that the bill is a bit premature.

“We don’t have drones,” he said. “I have no immediate plans to get them. One of the things I think is important to realize is drones have more uses than just surveillance of suspects. A number of other states are using them for search and rescue missions.”

State Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who sponsored the bill, said establishing privacy protections before drones become commonplace is just the point.

“It isn’t often we can see a potential problem in advance,” she said. “So, when we know there’s something likely to evolve, it’s a good time to intervene rather than stepping in after the fact.”

State Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and another sponsor of the bill. In the post-9/11 era, he said, law enforcement’s increasing surveillance to protect people has also “pushed the limits of privacy.” Moving deeper into the 21st century, Lippert speculates that privacy rights will become an increasingly important issue for Vermonters, and he said legislators might need to step in to balance out law enforcement’s use of technology.

“Unless or until there is a broader discussion around privacy rights and privacy issues,” Lippert said, “we face the possibility that our privacy rights will erode until the point that they are hard to get back.” HB540 was introduced with less than two weeks left in the 2013 session and days after Florida’s governor signed into law a similar provision. Despite the bill’s late proposal, House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, and the House Committee on Rules allowed the introduction of the bill.

State Rep. David Deen, vice chairman of the Rules Committee, said its members wanted to tee up the legislation for major consideration next year, in the second half of the legislative biennium.

“This is Vermont,” Deen said. “You live and let live. You don’t spy.”