Minnesota Lawmakers Squabble Over Police Drone Restriction Bill

Rep. Scott Dibble's bill would restrict drone use by state police officers due to concerns over an officer not being present for an arrest or detention of a suspect.

by Tad Vezner, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. / February 25, 2016

(TNS) -- Police drones that disarm samurai sword-carrying suspects and drop nets on others were debated during a lively legislative session this week.

The prospect – put forth by Minnesota Sheriff’s Association head Jim Franklin along with the question, “wouldn’t that be a good thing?” – prompted Rep. Scott Dibble, DFL–Minneapolis, to respond: “My blood runs cold when I hear testimony like I just heard.”

Dibble, who has sponsored a bill aimed at restricting drone use by law enforcement, referenced a prior debate about red-light cameras. He pointed out that if you demand a cop be present when you drop a traffic ticket on someone, you should probably have one around when you drop a net on someone, too.

Franklin, challenging a provision in the bill that called for drones to have “no weapons,” asked, “what do we define as a weapon?” and launched into scenarios of threatening suspects – such as “somebody with a samurai sword” – that could theoretically be subdued with the new technology.

“That is a very very dangerous road to start stepping down,” Dibble said.

What quickly became apparent during a joint hearing of the House Public Safety and Senate Judiciary committees Wednesday was that agreement on a bill to put strict restrictions on when police can use drones is more distant at the forefront of this legislative session than it was at the end of the last one.

Dibble’s bill, debated last year and awaiting a vote of the full Senate, would require search warrants for all drone use, except in the case of “an emergency situation that involves a reasonably likely threat to the life or safety of a person.” The drone could only be used for targets outlined by the warrant.

A court could also issue a permit for a law enforcement drone in a public area if there is a demonstrable, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and alternative methods of data collection are either too costly or risky. Drones could also be permitted to counter credible risks of terrorist attacks, and for rescue and recovery operations in the wake of disasters.

The bill also prohibits the use of facial recognition or “biometric matching” technology. It called for all data to be deleted no later than 24 hours after collection.

Franklin and Dibble clashed on whether law enforcement agencies currently have the right to use drones, with Dibble claiming they did. Franklin pointed out that not one law enforcement agency in the state is using drones, as none has received a license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Still, the two agreed on the requirement for warrants, and the exceptions.

The bill was created, Dibble said, to thwart the specter of “pervasive, suspicion-less, mass surveillance” by law enforcement. Ben Feist, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, added that unmitigated use of drones by law enforcement would “turn on its head the principle that we don’t watch innocent people just in case they do something wrong.”

Because it took place before the start of the legislative session, Wednesday’s hearing was “informational” only, and no action was taken.

©2016 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.