Connecticut Cops May Need Warrant to Use Drones

State legislation would require state and municipal police to get legal permission before using a drone for criminal surveillance.

by / April 14, 2015
The University of North Dakota offers undergraduate degrees in unmanned aircraft systems operations. University of North Dakota

Connecticut law enforcement agencies may soon need court approval if they want to monitor criminals with drones.

Senate Bill 974 requires state and municipal police to obtain a warrant before operating the unmanned aerial vehicles in criminal investigations. Training activities, or use of a drone in certain emergencies, is exempted from the measure.

The legislation passed the Connecticut judiciary committee earlier this month on a 43 to 1 vote. The bill covers law enforcement use of small, unmanned aircraft operated below 400 feet.

But while the recent vote on SB 974 in the Connecticut General Assembly looks positive, Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury – the lone dissenting vote on the judiciary committee – is worried the bill doesn’t do enough to ensure the privacy of Connecticut citizens.

In an interview with Government Technology, O’Neill explained that the measure lacks any guidelines or requirements regarding drone use by other state agencies, particularly those that have quasi-law enforcement duties. For example, he noted that the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) has park rangers who make arrests and conduct patrols, and the Department of Motor Vehicles has its enforcement arm, neither of which are covered by the legislation.

As a result, O’Neill is concerned that the use of drones can be abused and said the definition of what is a law enforcement agency should be expanded in SB 974 to cover those departments.

In addition, O’Neill raised the point that the way the bill is written, any state agency can use a drone as long as it registers with the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (OPM) and alerts it to what flights were flown. That data is then supposed to be posted on the OPM’s website so it’s available to the public.

“Except for the police, all state agencies are pretty much free to do whatever they want,” O’Neill said. “I see that as having a great risk of potential threats to people's privacy. These are agencies that have the power to do things to people based on the various authorities they have – it’s a lot of power.”

Concern over drone use has skyrocketed in recent years as the aircraft have become more affordable and widespread. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to publish regulations governing private drone use later this year.

As for SB 974, the measure still has a ways to go in the Connecticut legislative process. The House of Representatives and Senate still must both approve the bill. If they do, it would have to be signed into law by Gov. Dan Malloy.

As of press time on April 14, SB 974 was assigned to the Office of Legislative Research and the Office of Fiscal Analysis for further review. A hearing is not currently scheduled.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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