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Bill to Stop Warrantless Drone Surveillance Passes First Step in Washington State

OLYMPIA, Wa., February 13, 2015 – Today, a Washington State House committee passed a bill putting strict limitations on the use of drones and other “extra-sensory devices” within the state. The vote was 6-3.

Introduced by Rep. Dave Taylor (R-Moxee) and a bipartisan group of 16 cosponsors, House Bill 1639 (HB1639) would prohibit the use of drones to collect “personal information” without a warrant. Once such warrants are issued, the legislation allows their use for ten days. The legislation also bans public agencies from even acquiring drones without specific authorization from the appropriate governing body.

“This bill is about freedom.” noted Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley), who co-sponsored the bill. He wasn’t alone in his sentiments.

Another co-sponsor, Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), noted the growing nature of the surveillance state. “We’re being watched,” he said in reference to a similar bill in last year’s legislative session.

Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kennewick), one of the no votes, who last year said that prohibiting drones from being able to conduct surveillance without a warrant would result in people getting hurt, voted no while at the same time urging a yes vote next week on his own less-restrictive drone bill.

While HB1639 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.

TAC national communications director Mike 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 in or before any court, grand jury, department, officer, agency, regulatory body, legislative committee, or other authority of the state or a political subdivision thereof.”

HB1639 now moves to the House Rules committee, where it will be scheduled for consideration on the House floor.

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