CONCORD, N.H. (May 1, 2016) – Last week, the New Hampshire Senate passed a bill that would restrict the warrantless or weaponized use of drones by state and local law enforcement. The legislation would not only establish important privacy protections at the state level, it would also help thwart the federal surveillance state.
Rep. Neil Kurk, along with three other legislators, introduced House Bill 602 (HB602) last year. Under the proposed law, New Hampshire state and local law enforcement agencies could not “use drones, or obtain, receive, use, or retain information acquired by or through a drone, for law enforcement purposes,” without a warrant, with a few specific exceptions. It also includes a blanket ban on law enforcement use of drones equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.
On Thursday, the Senate approved HB602 on a voice vote. The House previously approved the measure 251-114. Under a Senate rule, the bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee for review. If it clears the Finance Committee, HB602 will have to go back to the House for concurrence with the Senate amendments.
Exceptions to the warrant requirement in HB602 include use of a drone with prior consent of the person under surveillance, if reasonable suspicion exists to believe swift action is needed to prevent imminent harm to life or serious damage to property, to support the tactical deployment of law enforcement personnel and equipment in an emergency situation, to counter high risk of terrorist attacks, for training and for a few other specifically defined criteria.
The legislation limits drone use under the exceptions to 48 hours, after which the law enforcement agency must obtain a warrant. Warrants must also be renewed after 48 hours.
The legislation also features some additional privacy protections, and requires the destruction of any evidence obtained in violation of the law, rendering it inadmissible in court. Such evidence also cannot be used to establish probable cause.
As passed by the House, HB602 allowed one exception to the prohibition of weaponized drones. It would have authorized law enforcement to use a drone to “to disperse lachrymatory agents to quell a violent mass civil disorder or riot as defined in RSA 644:1.” The Senate Judiciary amendment stripped that language from the bill.
Impact on the Federal Surveillance State
Although HB602 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 state 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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