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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wyoming Bill Would Regulate Law Enforcement Drones

The AP reports that Wyoming legislators are considering a bill that would regulate law enforcement agencies' use of drones:

Wyoming lawmakers are considering a bill to ban law enforcement use of drones without a warrant. 
Members of the Wyoming Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee are set to hear a draft bill this week in Laramie. If it's approved, the full Legislature could consider the measure early next year. 
Linda Burt is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Wyoming. Burt says it's important for the state to set limits on the use of drones before they become more prevalent in law enforcement. 
Legislative staffers drafted the bill the committee is set to consider at its meeting Thursday working from a model bill Burt presented to the committee earlier. 
"Basically what it does is it asks that before any law enforcement uses a drone for any kind of searches that they get a warrant based on probable cause," Burt said.
A few other websites have similar versions of this story, but they all seem to be copies of the AP report (although the Washington Times provides its own paraphrasing of the AP report here). Because of this, there are some missing details -- namely, the text of the bill.

After some investigative Google searching, I located the text of the bill -- you can find it here

While the bill is not much of a deviation from laws that have been passed and proposed in other states, I have a few comments on the current version.

The bill's proposals are fairly similar to many existing state restrictions on government drone use. The bill prohibits law enforcement officers from using drones unless they first obtain a warrant that specifies where the drone is to be used, and for what purpose. There are a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement, including search and rescue scenarios and situations where there are imminent threats to somebody's life or safety. I am happy to see that there is also an exception for instances where police use drones to reconstruct an accident scene, or for surveying a crime scene. 

The bill contains another exception to the warrant requirement that is somewhat confusing. Here's the text:

[Law enforcement agencies may not use drones unless the agency] (ii) Has probable cause to believe a person is committing a felony or is about to commit a felony and determines that:

(A) Exigent circumstances make it unreasonable for the agency to obtain a warrant authorizing use of the drone; and

(B) Use of a drone is likely to assist in the prevention of the felony. A drone shall not be used under this paragraph for longer than eight (8) hours.

This portion of the bill is a bit jumbled and could do with some revision. The beginning of the provision indicates that the warrant exception applies to situations where a person is committing OR has committed a felony. But the bill goes on to state that one of the necessary requirements for the exception to apply is that the use of the drone will prevent a felony from taking place, which would limit the scope of this exception to felonies that are underway or that have not yet been committed.

To eliminate this confusion and to make the overall exception into a cohesive whole, I think that (B) could be revised to state:

(B) Use of a drone is likely to assist in the prevention of the felony or in the apprehension of the suspected felon. A drone shall not be used under this paragraph for longer than eight (8) hours.
This addition would allow this exception to apply to situations where police are in pursuit of a suspect and a drone would assist in monitoring the suspect's movements. Moreover, by keeping the eight-hour limit, the potential for abuse of this exception would be minimized.

It looks like the bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, but I will keep it on my radar and make sure to report any changes in its status.

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