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State legislators eye domestic drone limits

Jan. 4, 2013 - 03:28PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 4, 2013 - 03:28PM  |  
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FARGO, N.D. — A freshman lawmaker from North Dakota is one of numerous state legislators around the country suggesting regulations to limit the use of unmanned planes for law enforcement, an effort that's gaining bipartisan support and fostering unlikely political alignments.

The bill proposed by Republican State Rep. Rick Becker, of Bismarck, stems from the 2011 arrest of a Lakota farmer during a 16-hour standoff, an event that sparked national debate. State courts held up law enforcement's use of a drone to help a SWAT team apprehend Rodney Brossart, but Becker says there should be safeguards in place to make sure the practice isn't abused.

Lawmakers plan to introduce similar bills in several states, and although Republicans are mostly leading the charge, the issue crosses party lines in Florida and brought together a tea party member from Virginia's General Assembly and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Becker insists he's not out to hinder police; he says it's a matter of privacy.

"It's a new technology that has really amazing capabilities and can be used in excellent ways for our communities. I don't want to say that drones can't be used," Becker said. "But with the new technology there are also issues, primarily privacy issues, which can come into play."

The sheriff in Cass County, the state's most populous county, says Becker's proposal could set a troublesome precedent.

"Some people have this idea that these drones are some sneak and peek into their private lives," said Sheriff Paul Laney, a former Red River Valley SWAT team commander and a member of a national board for crisis management on issues similar to the Brossart case. "It's no different than a routine patrol when we drive by in a squad car on the road and look down the driveway. We are just doing it from a higher level."

One part of Becker's proposal would require a warrant when drones are used as a part of a criminal investigation. Brossart's lawyer, Bruce Quick of Fargo, said a warrant was not obtained for drone use.

State Rep. Al Carlson, the Republican House majority leader from Fargo, said Becker's proposal warrants serious discussion.

"Obviously, invasion of privacy is always important to North Dakotans," Carlson said. "I think it's a good debate to have and I look forward to hearing it."

Similar legislation will be proposed in many states this legislative session, including California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Missouri, Michigan and Indiana. In Virginia, the ACLU/tea party-backed measure is expected to be unveiled this session.

In addition, a U.S. House of Representatives bill that targets drone privacy was introduced last month by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey. He plans this session to re-introduce the proposal that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant to use a drone except in situations such as imminent danger of death or a terrorist attack.

The Brossart arrest was the first drone surveillance case involving a private citizen to receive attention from national media outlets. The standoff began in June 2011, when Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went onto Brossart's land with a search warrant to look for six missing cows. Janke said he left after he was confronted by three men brandishing rifles.

Authorities used images from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Predator drone to find the location of three Brossart brothers, including Rodney, who lived on the farm and determine that they were unarmed. Police then moved in to arrest them.

State Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, a retired highway patrol officer, opposes Becker's idea and said he heard the same complaints when global cameras were first placed into squad cars.

"I see the same kind of things from the drones. It's new and I don't think people are quite used to it," he said. "I think it will blow over."

Some states are testing drones for uses that don't include investigations. Last month, a Department of Homeland Security drone testing program was launched near Fort Sill in southwestern Oklahoma.

Steve McKeever, the state's secretary of science and technology and vice president of research and technology transfer at Oklahoma State University, said the program is designed to test robotic aircraft technologies for use in public safety applications, such as first responders and search and rescue missions, and does not involve military use.

"All we're doing is testing technologies," McKeever said, noting the program does not involve training in pursuit situations as part of criminal investigations, like the drones were used in Brossart's case.

Brossart, his wife and their four children face several charges, including theft and terrorizing. Quick said he is negotiating a resolution that could be completed in the next month.

Quick, who earlier labeled drone use in the Brossart case as "outrageous government conduct," said he supports Becker's efforts.

"I'm not saying what they're doing is unconstitutional, although it could be in certain circumstances, I just don't like it," he said. "I just think the more that sort of intrusion happens, the less privacy we all have."

Associated Press writer Tim Talley in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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