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Maine Senate Gives Initial Nod to Restrictions on Domestic Drone Use
06/18/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The state Senate has voted to impose a two-year moratorium on allowing Maine police agencies to use surveillance drones. Lawmakers also decided to require that police obtain a warrant to use drones to spy on suspects. A.J. Higgins has more.

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State Sen. Linda Valentino attempted to find some common ground in the increasingly divisive debate over the use of aerial drones by police agencies. But the Saco Democrat says that goal has been complicated by the flurry of interest in the small flying devices.

"Everybody wants drones: real estate brokers, photographers, surveyors - everybody wanted the drones," Valentino said. "We need to slow this process down."

For nearly an hour Monday night, Valentino urged the 35 members of the Senate to back a proposed one-year moratorium on police drone surveillance. Valentino supported an approach - which had majority support in committee - that would place the police use of the devices on hold for 12 months while the state's Criminal Justice Academy panel could review protocols.

"We are placing a moratorium on the use for law enforcement so that they will not be snooping into people's lives - they will not do that, so therefore they do not need a search warrant because they're not supposed to be doing it," Valentino said.

That same position was favored by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, to address arguments raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, a group that pushed for language requiring police agencies to obtain a court-issued warrant before being permitted to deploy a drone to spy on a suspect.

Among those who supported the warrant language is state Sen. John Patrick, a Rumford Democrat, and Republican Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz. Rather than a division based on party lines, the issue split legislators into two camps: those who thought the Legislature should take the lead on the warrant issue, and those who wanted to let the Criminal Justice Academy work out the details of drone use.

Katz says lawmakers have already agreed that a warrant is needed for government entities to track a person's location through their cell phones. And, says Katz, a judge's order is needed when the state wants to obtain a person's medical history.

"Here, we're dealing with the fourth in a series of bills which, at least to this senator, is the most intrusive of all - being literally spied upon from above by a drone," Katz said, "which may be a large airplane-like thing that we can easily see, but it may be as small as an insect."

In a 21-14 vote, the Senate opted to go beyond the one-year moratorium, and began deliberating the warrant issue. Sen. David Burns, a retired state trooper, warned his seatmates that they would be better off heeding the advice of the attorney general, rather than following the lead of special interest groups like the ACLU of Maine.

Burns said there are some who would like to see the efforts of Maine law enforcement agencies efforts complicated by the warrant requirement. "They would have us completely tie our hands behind our back - that would suit them just fine," Burns said.

In the end, the Senate approved the warrant requirement, 23-12. It also expanded the moratorium period on when police could obtain a warrant for drones from one to two years. The bill faces further votes in the House and Senate.


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