AUGUSTA, Maine (July 21, 2015) – A Maine bill that drastically restricts the use of drones by state and local law enforcement, and serves to thwart one aspect of the federal surveillance state, became law earlier this month.
Introduced by Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland) and co-sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin), Legislative Document 25 (LD25) prohibits warrantless drone surveillance with only a few exceptions, requires local legislative approval before an agency can acquire drones and sets out minimum standards for drone operation.
The legislation became law as of July 2 without Gov. Paul LePage’s signature.
There was some controversy surrounding enactment of LD25. The governor contended that he had more time to act on the legislation, along with 18 other bills. But Maine Attorney General Janet Mills issued an opinion saying LePage missed the 10-day window allowed under the state constitution to act on the bills. The governor could conceivably challenge the AG’s ruling.
The new law, what some privacy supporters are calling an “important first step,” bars the use of drones “for criminal investigations without a warrant…except as permitted by a recognized exception to the requirement for a warrant under the Constitution of Maine or the United States Constitution.” The law also includes an outright ban on weaponized drones.
Law enforcement agencies may no longer purchase drones without the approval from the local governing body overseeing them. This empowers the people in a local community to stop their police from using drones altogether through their representative bodies.
In addition, law enforcement agencies may not “conduct surveillance of private citizens peacefully exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.”
The new law does allow law enforcement to “use an unmanned aerial vehicle for the purpose of a search and rescue operation when the law enforcement agency determines that use of an unmanned aerial vehicle is necessary to alleviate an immediate danger to any person or for training exercises related to such uses.”
Impact on the Federal Surveillance State
Although the new Maine law focuses exclusively on state and local drone use and does not apply directly to federal agencies, it throws 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.
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