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Maine Lawmaker Seeks to Regulate Drones
02/26/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

An eye in the sky has proven invaluable to military personnel deployed for combat. But some Mainers are balking at the idea of reconnaissance drones buzzing around their neighborhoods. One lawmaker has submitted a bill to regulate the use of aerial drones by police agencies, who would need a warrant before they could launch the surveillance devices. Privacy advocates are supporting the bill, but as A.J. Higgins reports, law enforcement officials and others oppose aspects of the legislation.

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State Sen. John Patrick says he used to think that Orwellian citizen surveillance was science fiction fodder. Then the Rumford Democrat found out how many police agencies across the country are expressing an interest in radio-controlled, aerial drones.

"Big Brother is no longer the stuff of science fiction," Patrick said. "A freedom of information request earlier this year revealed a growing list of police departments gaining permission to fly drones, including departments in Arlington, Houston, Little Rock, Miami, Dade County, Seattle, Gadsden," Patrick said.

Basic kits for the radio-controlled, high-flying drones can be purchased for a few hundred dollars and new federal laws require the Federal Aviation Administration to guarantee air space for domestic drones in the United States by 2015. Patrick says the FAA estimates there could be as many as 10,000 drones in U.S. air space seven years from now.

He told members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee that citizens have a right to expect privacy in their backyards, and that other states are leading the way.

"There are at least 15 state legislatures considering bills to limit drone use," Patrick said. "Virginia became the first state to do so this year when it passed a two-year moratorium. As with all new technology, we need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits without bringing us a large step closer to a surveillance society."

Patrick's bill would require the consent of the person being observed, a warrant or a court order before a drone could be deployed. It makes exceptions for situations that could involve serious bodily harm or an emergent condition involving national security. Other provisions restrict the ability of a private citizen to use a drone.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, supports Patrick's bill because it reinforces American constitutional protections.

"We're here today because the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads so clearly the right of the people to be secure in their persons, their houses, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated," Bellows said. "This legislation establishes clear Fourth Amendment protections in the area of surveillance activity not contemplated by the founders."

While several people spoke in favor of the bill, saying personal freedoms and privacy are eroding in the United States, Maine State Police Lt. Col. Raymond Bessette is less enthusiastic. Although Bessette told the committee that he felt his agency could find common ground with Patrick on some aspects of the bill, he asked lawmakers to consider a balanced approach when considering the legislation.

"An approach which seeks a balance between preserving public trust, ensuring the safety of our first responders, while at the same time recognizing the life-saving capabilities and commercial opportunities that this technology presents," Bessette said.

Dan Bernier told the committee that few legislative proposals grab the attention of his client, The Maine Society of Land Surveyors.

"You know, I often kid that I almost never get to testify on behalf of the land surveyors because I can't get them to get mad about anything," Bernier said. "Well they're not mad, but there is a panic setting in at engaging in a major mapping project without aerial photography."

Bernier said Patrick's bill appears to prohibit drones for private use, just as the devices are becoming increasingly used by land surveyors as a cheaper alternative to commercial aerial photography. The Judiciary Committee is slated to meet next month for a work session on the bill.


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