Lawmakers want to limit police use of drones

Published 5:01 am Saturday, March 2, 2019

By Dan Gunderson

MPR News/90.1 FM

Legislation that would limit law enforcement’s use of drones has bipartisan support this year at the state Capitol.

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Bills in the House and the Senate would require investigators to get a search warrant before they use a drone to monitor someone.

“The warrant requirement ensures that you’ve got to have a good reason to watch a person or a group of people,” said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who authored the House version of the bill.

“We’re trying to limit the investigation of innocent people with technology where it’s not necessarily warranted,” he said. “I think it’s Americans’ appreciation of our privacy rights that is really paramount and [that’s] why we’re pushing the legislation.”

The bill includes exceptions to that rule, in cases of emergencies, such as searches for a missing person, natural disasters or terrorism-related incidents.

Lesch has unsuccessfully proposed some version of this legislation several times since 2011. He found 18 other states that restrict law enforcement’s use of drones.

University of North Dakota professor Joe Vacek has been tracking drone laws for 10 years. He sees growing support for requiring search warrants to gather information using a drone.

“All law enforcement officials that I’ve spoken with don’t object to state statutes that require it,” Vacek said. “It’s just one extra step that they need to do. There may be some administrative requirements, but I haven’t heard from anybody that I’ve spoken to [who’s] saying, ‘Well, this is going to be a huge hindrance in the way we enforce the law.’”

The Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.

Many law enforcement agencies are still learning how to use drones, said Vacek, but he expects the use to expand.