Under the Dome

Safeguards on law enforcement drones sought in bipartisan bill

There is room for bipartisan agreement in the General Assembly, after all. What could bring both parties together is the shared concern over the law enforcement use of flying drones.

A bill filed this week would place firm restrictions on the drones. Its sponsors are Republican Reps. Mitchell Sezter of Catawba County and Tim Moffitt of Buncombe County, and Democratic Reps. Duane Hall of Wake County and Pricey Harrison of Guilford County.

The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union immediately praised the legislation as providing needed safeguards.

“Across the country, law enforcement agencies are greatly expanding their use of domestic drones to conduct surveillance on citizens, often without any oversight,” state ACLU policy director Sarah Preston said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the Monroe City Council approved its police department buying a “mini drone” at a cost of up to $44,000 in money obtained through drug investigation asset forfeiture cases. Police said they would put in place policies on its use before flying the battery-operated craft, which will have a rotating infrared camera, The Charlotte Observer reported.

Gaston police bought a drone in 2006 with drug forfeiture money, but say it has been too costly to fly.

Drones were thrust into the national news this month when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky went on a 13-hour filibuster, saying he would stop if the Senate voted on his resolution declaring using drones against Americans on U.S. soil unconstitutional.

House Bill 312 would prohibit city police, county sheriffs or state law enforcement agencies from using drones in investigations, unless they have a search warrant or reasonable suspicion that immediate action is needed to prevent imminent harm, property damage, escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence.

They would be allowed to use drones for other purposes, but any information gathered could not be used in legal proceedings. Facial recognition or other “biometric” matching technology would be prohibited. Drones used in searches would have to be documented in court within 48 hours.

ACLU affiliates in North Carolina and 22 other states filed public records requests to determine the extent of drone use in the U.S. In North Carolina, the ACLU asked for records from 64 of the state’s largest local law enforcement agencies.

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