ST. PAUL, Minn. — Fears of prying from the sky have some Minnesota lawmakers seeking clamps on law enforcement's use of unmanned aerial drones to gather evidence.
Drones operated by Minnesota authorities aren't taking off just yet, but legislation that would curb potential uses is on the docket for the 2014 session. The drone debate has moved into statehouses across the country given increased public sensitivity to government surveillance of its citizens.
Civil libertarians and privacy advocates are cheering the scrutiny. Others, like model airplane hobbyists, are on alert for a possible intrusion on their pastime.
The bill awaiting discussion would put "drone" in Minnesota law books for the first time. It would only cover use of the remote devices by law enforcement agencies, even though drones might someday be used to deliver goods or wind up in the arsenal of private investigators. The Federal Aviation Administration is currently drawing up rules for use of the aircraft for commercial purposes.
The Minnesota proposal demands that agencies get warrants or meet tests of "imminent" danger before they may use camera-toting drones. If those conditions aren't met, government agencies could be exposed to lawsuits or face suppression of criminal evidence the devices obtain.
Republican Rep. Brian Johnson of Cambridge, a retired sheriff's deputy, is leading a bipartisan charge in the House. In an interview Friday, he said he isn't trying to deprive law enforcement of a potentially valuable tool.
"This is an attempt to balance the needs of law enforcement and the civil rights of Minnesotans and their privacy," he said. "We want to make sure we use it properly."
Drone equipment is far from standard among Minnesota police. A spokesman said neither the Minnesota Department of Public Safety nor the State Patrol has drones. Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said her department "does not own any flying unmanned drone aircraft and at this time we do not intend to purchase or use this type of equipment." The same goes for St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith.
But Smith told a House committee last week that he envisions scenarios where they would pay off.
"I'm an old SWAT guy. I ran our SWAT team for a long time," Smith said as he described a hypothetical suspect hunt where police don't know what dangers they'll encounter as they move in. "Would I use that (technology) and support that? Absolutely I would and I think this committee would as well. But that's something down the road."
Some pushing for legislative action stress that even if Minnesota law enforcement agencies don't own drones, nothing prevents them from asking for assistance from federal agencies or military branches that have them.
In early January, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension revealed it had worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to obtain unmanned aerial vehicle surveillance of public lands where marijuana plants were suspected. The acknowledgement came in response to a data request from Public Record Media's Matt Ehling.
"To date, the BCA has only used UAVs over public lands," Department of Public Safety General Counsel E. Joseph Newton told Ehling in a letter.
Any state law would apply only to state and local investigations and prosecutions, leaving federal agencies to operate as they normally would.
Catherine Crump, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said it's smart for state lawmakers to get ahead of the issue.
"Americans are used to associating drone technology with far-off places such as Yemen and Afghanistan, but drones are coming to America," she said.
Aside from powerful lenses that capture clear images, some drones are equipped with thermal imaging. A host of questions loom, including whether the airspace over someone's property can be considered private and protected from the low-altitude aircraft.
Minnesota is hardly alone in the drone debate.
Last week, the California assembly voted overwhelmingly to restrict drone use by government authorities, require agencies to notify the public when they intend to use drones and insist that data collected by the aircraft be destroyed within six months. Authorities could bypass a requirement for a warrant if there is an imminent threat to life, if emergency personnel are dealing with traffic accidents, if it is for inspection of state parks and wilderness areas for marijuana crops or being used to detect wildfires.
Iowa's Legislature is weighing a few proposals that go beyond law enforcement evidence collection. Bills there would also prohibit drones equipped with weapons or used for harassment purposes, with penalties for violators.
In North Carolina, lawmakers are grappling with how to balance calls for restrictions with a desire to make the state more attractive to the fledgling aircraft industry that builds them. Next door to Minnesota, North Dakota was recently named one of six FAA test sites for drones.
At the Academy of Model Aeronautics, government affairs director Rich Hanson found himself tracking more than 40 bills in legislatures nationwide last year and expects to have his hands full this year, too. As the trade group for radio control airplane clubs, the academy is on the lookout for bills that are overly vague, particularly when it comes to defining drones.
"They tend to forget that modelers have been using and placing cameras on their aircraft for years to take pretty pictures of the flying field and landscape," Hanson said of lawmakers tackling a concept new to them. "The platform and the equipment in a lot of places are very similar. The only differentiation is how it's being used."
As for Minnesota's bill, Hanson said he's comfortable for now. "At first blush, I don't see any implications for model aviation."