Pennsylvania Senator Launches Drone Moratorium Law

Under the law, the use of small, remote controlled drones that can be equipped with cameras would be prevented, with the exception of a handful of emergency circumstances.

by John Latimer, Lebanon Daily News, Pa. / August 12, 2015
(TNS) -- You can add drones to the list of controversial issues Sen. Mike Folmer is taking on.

On Friday, Folmer -- the Lebanon County, Penn., state senator getting headlines for pushing the legalization of medical marijuana -- introduced legislation that would place a two-year moratorium on the use of drones by state and local agencies, including law enforcement.

Under the law, the use of small, remote controlled drones that can be equipped with cameras would be prevented, with the exception of a handful of emergency circumstances, such as natural disasters, search and rescue operations and Amber Alerts.

The bill, introduced in the Senate State Government Committee chaired by Folmer, also addresses the use of weaponized drones. It permits their use for Pennsylvania National Guard and Department of Defense unit training, as well as by state and local agencies with a warrant.

Folmer calls Senate Bill 971 the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, after the Bill of Rights amendment that protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. He did not return a message for comment.

In a memorandum issued in July, when he voiced his intention to submit drone legislation, Folmer quoted the Fourth Amendment:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Folmer stated he feared these constitutional rights "are being threatened by 21st Century technology," and noted that many other states have "introduced legislation to limit, ban, or place a moratorium on the use of drones."

According to a legislative review by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 26 states have passed laws regulating the use of drones. However, the majority address their use by citizens and not the government.

A few, including those passed by Maine and Virginia, are similar to Folmer's proposal requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using drones.

North Lebanon Township police Chief Harold Easter, who is president of the Lebanon County Chiefs of Police Association, does not see a distinction between the use of drones and other surveillance tools used by police. The department does not currently own a drone but has considered purchasing one, he said.

"We in law enforcement know when we need to get a warrant," Easter said. "We are not going to be using drones to peek in windows or sneak into your back yard. We know when we need a warrant and when we don't. We won't be violating a law just because we have a new asset."

Drones are a tool that have recently come into use by county detectives for motor vehicle crash reconstruction and crime scene investigation, said District Attorney David Arnold.

The county does not own a drone but contracts the use of one when needed, like last week in Campbelltown when a drone was used to map out the scene of a police shooting where an 18-year-old New Jersey man was killed in an exchange of gunfire with police after robbing a gun shop.

"The scene encompassed such a large area that included soybean fields and corn fields, and it was virtually impossible to get a sense of what was going on without going overhead in some fashion," Arnold said.

At crash scenes, drones are replacing fire company ladder trucks which the Lebanon County Accident Reconstruction Team had used to obtain aerial photos, Arnold said.

"A drone just works 100 times better and is much more efficient," he said.

Arnold said he wishes that Folmer had reached out to law enforcement representatives before introducing his bill regulating drones.

"To my knowledge he hasn't reached out to anybody in enforcement, not to myself or the (Pennsylvania) District Attorneys Association," he said. "While I understand the concern and think it is a valid to have concerns (about privacy), to simply put a ban or moratorium on their use at this point is a little bit premature."

Easter agreed and said the focus should be on regulating the use of drones by civilians, not law enforcement.

"We've already had problems at airports with drones," he said. "The legislation should be directed more towards limiting use by civilians, because right now it is an open book."

©2015 the Lebanon Daily News (Lebanon, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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