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Wyoming Drone Protection Act Dies in Senate Judiciary

House Bill 18 – the Drone Protection Act – died this morning in the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 2-3. The bill was a committee bill, considered by the Joint Judiciary Committee (that is, the Senate and House committees together) in the interim between the 2014 and 2015 legislative sessions. The bill passed the House 41-19, but had House committee and additional floor amendments that raised concerns in the Senate Judiciary.

The gist of HB18 was to require police to get a warrant before using drones for criminal investigations, with ample exceptions for search and rescue and other operations not related to law enforcement. As I discuss in detail in my Liberty Brief on police drone regulation, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides little protection against government surveillance in public, so given the decreasing cost and efficiency of drones (noted not just by me, but in various testimony by law enforcement agencies) it is likely that they will be used for general and particular surveillance in Wyoming soon enough, with no law to stand in their way.

Frustratingly, law enforcement – particularly the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, represented by Byron Oedekoven – repeated some misinformation presented to the House Judiciary Committee when it considered the bill a few weeks ago. Oedekoven testified that local police agencies such as the Cheyenne Police Department would have to go through budgetary processes in order to acquire a drone, and would thus be subject to local oversight. This is not true. When the Cheyenne PD acquired its $1 million Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), it went through the federal 1033 program. Since the MRAP was “free,” the Cheyenne City Council had no input. As Linda Burt from the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, Homeland Security is currently providing grants for police drones. Wyoming police don’t have drones yet, but they will soon enough, and acquisition will not require any input from local elected officials or state legislators.

Drone Protection

Foreshadowing: as the Drone Protection Act died this morning, the Cheyenne Police Department’s MRAP stood guard a few blocks away.

Oedekoven also testified that the warrant restrictions in HB18 would prevent police from investigating certain situations discovered during drone operations, presenting a hypothetical where a drone spots a dead body. I believe the search and rescue exception in the bill would have covered a good number of these situations, and counter that it’s the very purpose of the bill that drones should not be used by police on private or public lands for general surveillance just to see what turns up, even if it’s a dead body.

Indeed, while I believe the dead body hypothetical is a red herring, the other extreme – that law enforcement aims to become Big Brother – is already unfolding. Just after the House passed HB18, a Wall Street Journal report (paywall) revealed that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has been monitoring certain highways and storing license plate numbers for two years. (In a small comfort, they have revised their data retention policy to 90 days.) This comes in the wake of revelations that the National Security Agency maintained a database of domestic phone calls (paywall) and other monitoring programs. The default position of law enforcement has unfortunately become “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.”

The topic of drone regulation may be considered again in the 2015-16 interim, and this always increases the likelihood of passage (HB18 notwithstanding). In any event, it will take serious legislative craftsmanship and strong resolve, particularly because certain representatives of law enforcement will undoubtedly remain poised to kill any regulatory effort.

Here’s hoping the Drone Protection Act returns next year and passes!

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Monday, 23 October 2017
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