RICHMOND, Va. (Feb. 24, 2015) The Virginia House joined the Senate today and unanimously passed a bill that would permanently restrict the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. If ultimately signed into law, this legislation would not only establish important privacy protections at the state level, it would also thwart the federal surveillance state.

Virginia was the first state in the U.S. to establish any restrictions on drones when former Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a two year moratorium on the use of unmanned aircraft in 2013. SB1301 would replace that temporary moratorium with permanent restrictions on drone use.

The House approved the bill by a 99-0 vote today. The Senate passed the legislation back on Feb. 10 by a 21-17 vote. The two version have some technical differences, so the bill will go back to the Senate for final approval of the House version.

SB1301 would require any “state or local government department, agency, or instrumentality having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations,” to obtain a warrant before deploying a drone with only a few exceptions.

The bill only allows warrantless use of a drone to help locate a missing persons, if officials determined it necessary to alleviate an immediate danger to any person, or, “if a person with legal authority consents to the warrantless search.” It also allows for the use of drones for certain non-law enforcement activities such as disaster damage assessment. The House version carves out exceptions for the National Guard when training for its “federal mission.”

SB1301 includes a blanket prohibition against weaponized drones.

Impact on the Federal Surveillance State

Although SB1301 focuses exclusively on state and local drone use and does not apply directly federal agencies, the legislation would throw a high hurdle in front of some federal programs.

Much of the funding for drones at the state and local level comes from the federal government, in and of itself a constitutional violation. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

The federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the sate and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

Bills like SB1301 make part of a bigger strategy to put and end to government drone surveillance. Virginia led the way with its 2013 moratorium and appears set to take the next step. Each bill introduced, passed, and signed into law creates and builds momentum for other states to do the same.


Mike Maharrey