Drone Legislation Takes Flight

As technology continues to evolve and incorporate itself into society in new ways, these changes afford new opportunities for law enforcement to fight crime. One of these new technologies expanding in a major way is the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, whose use by law enforcement is the subject of bipartisan legislation heard in the Judiciary Committee on Friday, March 13.

This new legislation would set rules on what purposes law enforcement could have for the use of these UAVs in the state of Minnesota. Currently, no law enforcement agencies in the state use UAVs, but potential uses of them could include high-powered cameras, thermal imaging devices, license plate readers, laser radars, and facial recognition technology. Proponents of the legislation believe it is critical to have clear, consistent roles governing law enforcement agency UAV use.

The bill establishes that law enforcement must acquire a search warrant to use a UAV, with only two exceptions. The first is in an emergency situation that involves an imminent threat to the life or safety of a person. Law enforcement can also collect information from a public area if there are specific and articulable facts demonstrating reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and if the UAV is the only option for this data collection. In both instances, law enforcement must report on the use of the UAV.

Before acquiring a UAV, the bill also requires approval from the government entity overseeing the law enforcement agency. The approval would be contingent on several factors: that data collection be on specific and narrowly defined targets, that law enforcement not use facial recognition or other biometric-matching technology with a UAV without a court order or warrant, and that UAVs not be equipped with weapons. Any data collected must be deleted as soon as possible, and is classified as criminal investigative data.

Furthermore, notice must be given to the subject of a warrant or order within three days of completing the surveillance with the UAV. Law enforcement can request a delay if the notification would have an adverse result either by endangering the life or physical safety of an individual, risk of flight from prosecution, destruction or tampering with evidence, intimidation of potential witnesses, otherwise seriously jeopardizing an investigation or unduly delaying a trial.

To ensure public accountability, the bill also adds reporting requirements from the law enforcement agency on their use of UAVs, and from judges who issued a warrant or order, or who may have denied approval of one during the year. These reports will be collated, analyzed, summarized, and made publicly available to the legislature and on the state court administrator’s website. (S.F. 1299)

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