The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee will be dealing with a variety of issues in the upcoming session and one of them is an omnibus privacy bill that attempts to update laws and regulations that haven’t kept pace with technology. Under consideration will be limits on cell phone and license plate reader data collection. The regulation of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (a term the UAV industry lobby wants used to avoid the negative images “drones” often carry) is also targeted. Previously attempts were made on all of this during in past sessions with mixed success and some proposed drone regulations banning weapons were redlined out of a recent bill as passed.
Specific to drones, Committee Vice Chairman Senator Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) previews some of what the Judiciary Committee now wants. For the average person, the bill prevents the owner or operator of a drone from attaching a weapon to it. Otherwise, civilian drone use would be governed by the rules created by the Federal Aviation Administration, which will require drone owners to register their crafts with the administration beginning in February.
The bill would prohibit law enforcement from using a drone without a warrant. If a warrant is granted to police to use a drone, police may only collect information on the subject of the warrant and may not collect data on any other home, person or area.
Yearly notification requirements and limits on the length of time collected data can be kept are also included. But at least in this recent news article, no mention is made about how or if the Judiciary Committee will deal with law enforcement arming drones with weapons of the lethal or “non-lethal” kind.
Well, Vermont lawmakers had better define “weapon” very, very thoughtfully. Look at what happened in North Dakota when they tried to tackle legislation on law enforcement drones.
With the passage of a new law earlier this year , North Dakota has become the first state to legalize law enforcement use of armed drones.
Though the law limits the type of weapons permitted to those of the “less than lethal” variety — weapons such as tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbags, pepper spray and Tasers — the original bill actually aimed to ensure that no weapons at all were allowed on law enforcement drones.
With eyes wide shut, that state passed a landmark law that did require warrants for police drone surveillance. But perhaps, in an attempt at balancing privacy and tools for law enforcement, the ND law included rules that allow rubber bullets, beanbags, and Tasers and tear gas canisters (non-lethal weapons) on drones. Many of these non-lethal weapons can maim and kill people.
Meanwhile back in Vermont, limiting average (non-law enforcement) people from arming drones gets a big thumbs-up from the VT Fish and Wildlife Department. Notably, an earlier VT Senate effort S.18 (sponsored by Senators Tim Ashe D/P-Chittenden and Joe Benning) sought an outright ban on weapons on all drones, as well as the law enforcement use of facial recognition technology, except to locate a person subject to a warrant. If the Judiciary committee has designs to attempt a blanket weapons ban on law enforcement drone weapons (non-lethal or not so non-lethal)they have chosen to be very quiet about it.
About the 2016 legislative session, Committee vice Chairman Sen. Benning says : “ […] the lawmakers look to strike a balance between personal privacy and giving police the tools they need to do their job” Let’s hope North Dakota’s landmark drone weapon law hasn’t tipped the balance for Vermont to follow. Put many more tools in that law enforcement tool box and they’ll need a tank to move it around.