OLYMPIA, Wash. — One day after Seattle police nixed a controversial drone program, Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, introduced a bill Friday that would put tight restrictions on government agencies’ use of drones and the distribution of the information they collect.
House Bill 1771 would require legislative approval before any state law enforcement agency could purchase and use a public unmanned aircraft system. It would also require city and county law enforcement agencies get approval from their elected councils and commissions to do likewise.
“It raises the issue of whether technology is outpacing the protections of citizens’ constitutional rights,” Taylor said. “And what kind of liability are these agencies creating by using (drones)?”
Somce 2007, at least three agencies in the state have applied for or received Federal Aviation Administration approval to operate domestic drone programs, according the advocacy nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. Those include requests in 2011 by the Seattle Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office, as well as a 2007 request by the state Department of Transportation, which experimented with drones for avalanche control and search and rescue operations.
The foundation, based out of San Francisco, compiles an annual list of applicants for domestic drone programs based on public records.
Lawmakers in at least 11 states are looking at plans to restrict the use of drones over their skies amid concerns the vehicles could be exploited to spy on Americans.
Concerns have increased since the FAA began establishing safety standards for civilian drones, which are becoming increasingly affordable and small in size.
The Seattle Police Department bought two Draganflyer X6 vehicles through a federal grant without public input. The Draganflyer X6 vehicle is 36 inches wide and is 33.5 inches long, and stand just under a foot.
Taylor said it was a coincidence that the bill was submitted one day after Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced the city’s police department would abandon its plans for a drone program. Taylor said he first began working on the bill in November.
“We wanted to get something introduced so we can begin discussion, but suddenly now it’s kind of at the forefront,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s bill immediately gained the backing of the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which spearheaded the opposition to Seattle police drones.
“Aerial drones can provide law enforcement agencies with unprecedented capabilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy,” ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said in an email.
Taylor, who is known more often for his hard-right conservative policy proposals, has convinced seven Democrats and 19 sponsors in all to sign on to the bill.
“What’s amazing is the idea of personal liberty and freedom is not a partisan issue,” Taylor said.
The bill would also require a meticulously written warrant, including information on the area in which the drone will operate, approved by a court prior to using such vehicles to collect information on an individual.
Such warrants would expire after 48 hours under the proposed statute.
A copy of the search warrant must be issued to the person or people whose personal information was collected within 10 days of the execution of the warrant. Law enforcement, however, could request an exemption to the 10-day notification clause.
The bill, which was referred to the House Public Safety Committee, also allows for emergency exceptions where an unmanned aircraft may be used to collect information prior to the execution of a warrant.
Drones would be required to be taken out of operation as soon as the information being sought is collected, and information collected on individuals who are not the target of such warrants must be destroyed within 24 hours.
The bill, which would take effect immediately if signed into law, would also allow some oversight of drone programs by the governor, state Supreme Court and State Patrol.
The bill is yet to be scheduled for a hearing. One of the bills sponsors is Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who chairs the Public Safety Committee.
Taylor said the bill is aimed at protecting privacy and reducing the liability of any Washington agencies that use the vehicles.
He added that should the bill get a hearing in committee, he expects to hear from law enforcement agencies on how they would use drones.
On Monday, the Charlottesville City Council in Virginia passed a resolution imposing a two-year moratorium on the use of drones within city limits.
The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group behind the city’s effort, said Charlottesville was the first city in the country to limit the use of drones by police.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security drones do enter Washington airspace occasionally, patrolling the Canadian border east of the Cascade mountains.
The two 10,000-pound Predator-B unmanned aircraft are based in North Dakota.
• Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.