Connecticut again weighs regulating police drones

A Parrot AR Drone 2.0 is seen flying during a demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 9, 2013, in Las Vegas. Connecticut lawmakers in 2017 again introduced a bill seeking to regulate police use of drones. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

For the fourth year in a row, Connecticut legislators have introduced a bill seeking to regulate police use of drones.

In 2014, the bill failed to make it out of committee. One year after that, it passed the state Senate but wasn’t heard in the House of Representatives before the session was over. Last year, the opposite was true.

“This year, bills will need strong bipartisan support to pass,” said David McGuire, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU and a strong supporter of the bill’s language. “Historically, this bill has had support from Democrats and Republicans. I think the fourth time’s the charm here.”

If passed, Raised House Bill No. 7260, introduced by the Judiciary Committee, would require police to get a warrant prior to conducting surveillance of individuals or private property except in certain cases, such as searching for a missing person or a fleeing and dangerous person.

It also bans the weaponization of drones for police and the public, although it allows police to operate drones that can detect, detonate or dispose of explosives.

The bill creates some new crimes, such as reckless endangerment with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and requires police to publicize information about how often and under what circumstances they deploy their drones, too.

Regulation is important, McGuire said, because of the capacity of drones, which only will grow more powerful in the coming years. Some have excellent cameras. Some record audio. Others have facial-recognition technology. Most can float around in the air relatively unnoticed.

“As people interact with these more and learn more, they understand the need to regulate the technology,” McGuire said, “because people in the United States really value our privacy. We have privacy rights and expectations unlike any country in the world.”

Connecticut, McGuire said, was one of the first states to consider regulating drones. Now several others, including Vermont, have such laws on the books. “We’re falling behind and we need to catch up,” he said.

In testimony submitted for the Wednesday public hearing of the Judiciary Committee, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association offered a sharp rebuke of the bill.

“The limitation on how law enforcement can utilize this new tool is premature,” Chiefs Paul Fitzgerald and Paul Melanson wrote. “The potential misuse of an unmanned aerial device by criminal or terror individuals or groups is not yet understood. Why then limit law enforcement’s ability to protect the public?”

McGuire, familiar with that argument, said it’s easier to amend an existing law as technology evolves than to roll back the use of technology after it has been unrestricted for some time.

He used license plate readers as an example. The ACLU unsuccessfully lobbied in Connecticut for regulations that would, among other things, limit the database police could amass from the controversial scanners mounted on cruisers and sometimes stationary objects.

“We get many complaints from people who feel their privacy has been violated,” McGuire said. “But now that the technology’s out there, it will be difficult to rein in.”

Despite the association’s stance, members of many local police departments told The Day earlier this year they would welcome guidance on the technology and probably wouldn’t get a drone until such guidance was in place.

Peter Sachs, an attorney who’s the author and publisher of Drone Law Journal, also spoke unfavorably about the bill, which he believes isn’t comprehensive enough.

Sachs drafted House Bill No. 6895, a bill two legislators introduced in January, to tackle the same topic. He thinks it should be the bill that goes forward.

In his testimony, Sachs outlined some of what he considers to be Raised House Bill No. 7260’s shortcomings. Unlike his bill, he wrote, 7260 doesn’t require drone operators and pilots to follow federal aviation statutes and regulations. It doesn’t contain a provision for illegal invasion of privacy and fails to clarify that all existing and future criminal statutes apply if criminal conduct is committed with an unmanned aerial vehicle. His list goes on.

“As the comparison above makes clear, the bill I had drafted is far more comprehensive than the one being considered here today,” Sachs wrote. “I would strongly urge you to consider the language I drafted in HB-6195 in place of the bill before you today.”

Supporting or partially supporting the bill were Council 4 AFSCME, the Connecticut Airport Authority and ACLU-CT.

“Under this bill, police still have wide discretion to use drones in emergencies where it’s widely understood this technology will be very helpful,” McGuire said. “That’s why I believe this bill strikes a balance between public safety and privacy, which is not an easy thing to do.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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