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Bill to Restrict Drones Clears N.H. Committee

Concord — A move to severely restrict the use of drones to protect citizen privacy cleared a key committee this week.

State Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said he has learned from the pitfalls of a failed attempt in 2013 to ban drones from taking pictures of peoples’ houses.

And Kurk said he’s willing to keep compromising to eventually win over support from the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters, both of which have raised First Amendment concerns about his bill (HB 1620).

“We are all in agreement on what we want to accomplish but just don’t have an agreement yet on how to get there,” Kurk said.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee liked well enough what Kurk has done to date and voted 12-5 to recommend that the House pass the measure.

Rep. Robert Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said this is a cutting-edge issue whose time has come, given the expanding use of unmanned aircraft by government and commercial sponsors.

“I think this is important to recognize we don’t have any tools in our law books to address this technology that is changing so rapidly than our Founding Fathers could have possibly anticipated,” Cushing said.

He urged Kurk to keep working on changes to the measure to appease critics.

“I don’t want the perfect to become the enemy of the good, so I am going to support this,” Kurk said.

But state Rep. Tim Robertson, D-Keene, said he saw no need for the legislation and worried that it could lead to more nuisance complaints for local law enforcement.

“I don’t think it is a terribly serious crime, and I think the law enforcement people have more important things to do,” Robertson said. “This is not a real problem, and enforcing it is going to be impossible.” Rep. Latha Mangipudi, D-Nashua, said the growing interest of businesses such as Amazon to use small drones to deliver packages or photograph commercial property make this an ideal topic for lawmakers to tackle.

“Drones are here to stay,” Mangipudi said. “To say we aren’t going to address it, we are giving up the desire to regulate this technology.” Under the bill , government must first obtain a search warrant to use a drone to gather evidence to be used in court, unless it has reasonable suspicion that non-warrant action is needed to prevent “imminent harm to life or serious damage to property.”

All government drones would be limited to a 48-hour period, and within a day, it shall report in writing the use of any drones to the Attorney General’s Office.

State prosecutors must annually post these requests on their website.

Within one day of the operation, all information not directly related to any target for the drone use shall be destroyed, the bill states.

The government and private people can use drones if they have previous consent of each person affected by them.

Kurk lowered the penalties for violating the restrictions on drones from a felony that could carry up to seven years in prison to a misdemeanor with up to a year in jail only for those working for government.

Private individual violators would be subject to a fine under Kurk’s revised bill.

In another major concession, Kurk agreed that his bill would only kick in if the federal government allowed it, since the Federal Aviation Administration regulates the nation’s air space.

Rep. Joe Duarte, R-Candia, has his own restriction on government use of drones bill (HB 1361) that is pending before this same panel.

Earlier this month, federal officials confirmed they were investigating the possible illegal use of a video-camera drone at a fatal car crash site in Hartford, Conn.

The man using the camera, Pedro Rivera, is a freelance journalist who works for the Fox News affiliate in Hartford, WFSB-TV.

Rivera has said this filming was not done for the station but for his private use.

He has since hired a lawyer and said he’ll sue local police for lost wages because the station suspended him for a week after the incident.

A member of the panel, Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, said the media should get no special privileges to use drones in this bill.

“I don’t think the press deserves any special treatment. They should operate under the same rules as everyone else,” Vaillancourt said.

As for enforcement, Vaillancourt said there may be unintended abuses of this bill in early stages should it become law.

“We can’t guarantee it is going to be followed 100 percent of the time, but we can send a signal that it is what we want,” Vaillancourt said.