OLYMPIA, Wa., March 7, 2014 – Tonight, the Washington State seate passed a bill putting strict limitations on the use of drones and other “extra-sensory devices” within the state. The vote was 46-1. The bill was previously passed by the house by a vote of 83-15.

House Bill 2789 (HB2789) was filed by Rep. Dave Taylor (R-Moxee) and a bipartisan group of five democrats and six republicans. The bill prohibits the use of drones to collect personal information that “describes, locates, or indexes anything about a person” without a warrant “made in writing, upon oath or affirmation, to a judicial officer…where there is probable cause.” Once such warrants are issued by a judicial officer, the legislation allows their use for ten days. A judicial officer may grant an extension, but for no more than thirty days.

The legislation also bans public agencies from even acquiring drones without specific authorization from the appropriate governing body.

HB2789 pointed to restrictions on government in the state constitution as the basis for the bill. “The legislature finds that extraordinary surveillance technologies do present a substantial privacy risk  potentially contrary to the strong privacy protections enshrined in  Article I, section 7 of the Washington state Constitution that reads  ‘No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home  invaded, without authority of law.'”

“This bill is about freedom.” noted Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley), who co-sponsored the bill. He wasn’t alone in his sentiments. On the Senate side, the lone dissent came from Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), who mocked the legislation with a proposed amendment, which would have placed a prohibition on “Santa Claus and his flying sleigh, known worldwide under a variety of aliases, who is reputed to collect personal information on all the good and bad boys and girls around the world.”

Last year, a leaked email indicated that Honeyford intentionally kept from the public that he was hosting drone manufacturers and lobbyists at the state capitol for an event demonstrating their products.

Tenth Amendment Center national communications director Mike Maharrey wasn’t surprised. “This is par for the course,” he said. “Guys like Honeyford think that a warrant is some kind of joke. But this vote is another message, that his kind of traitor isn’t going to be tolerated forever.”

While the bill limits drone use by state and local government, it will have serious impact on intended results being pushed by the federal government.  At this stage in the deployment of drones around the country, the federal government is working behind in scenes in many situations to encourage states to operate the drones. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has often issued significant funding grants to local governments so that those agencies can purchase drones.

Maharrey pointed out that banning states from using drones will thwart federal spying plans as well. “The plan is pretty clear,” he said. “The feds provide grants to buy drones, and once state and local agencies around the country are operating them, all that the federal spies need to do is invoke information-sharing programs under the PATRIOT Act, and they’ve got a network of spies flying everywhere.  When states ban their use without a warrant, this kind of future plan is unlikely to ever take off.”

The legislation does include some exceptions to the warrant requirement in specific emergency situations. Included are situations such as forest fires, monitoring damage from a “weather-related catastrophe” and surveying for wildlife management, provided that the drone is not being used to investigate criminal activity. It also prohibits the use of information obtained in violation of the act in “any trial, hearing, or other proceeding.”

HB2789 now moves to back to the state house. Due to some minor technical amendments the house will first need to concur before sending the bill to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk for a signature.

Action Items

In Washington State:  Take steps to support limits on drones HERE.

Other States:  Contact your state legislators today – urge them to introduce similar legislation.  Model bills and contact info HERE.

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