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Minnesota Committee Passes Bill That Would Ban Warrantless Drone Spying; Hinder Federal Surveillance Program

ST. PAUL, Minn. (March 14, 2016) –  A Minnesota bill that would restrict the warrantless use of drones by state and local law enforcement in most cases passed an important Senate committee today. The legislation would not only establish important privacy protections at the state level, it would also help thwart the federal surveillance state.

A bipartisan coalition of three senators introduced Senate Bill 1299, (SF1299) in March 2015. The bill would prohibit Minnesota law enforcement agencies from using a drone for surveillance without a warrant in most situations. It would also ban the use of weaponized drone.

SF1299 cleared the Judiciary Committee with a do-pass recommendation.

The legislation does allow some exceptions to the warrant requirement. Police would be able to deploy a drone in an emergency situation that “involves a reasonably likely threat to the life or safety of a person.” It would also allow warrantless drone deployment to counter “a high risk of a terrorist attack” and during a natural disaster. The legislation allows for warrantless drone surveillance in public areas “if a court, upon motion, determines that there are specific and articulable facts demonstrating reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, that the operation of the UAV will uncover this activity, and that alternative methods of data collection are either cost prohibitive or present a significant risk to any person’s bodily safety.”

The proposed law requires destruction of any information collected on areas or persons not named in the warrant within 24 hours. Any information gathered in violation of the law would be inadmissible in a criminal prosecution.

Impact on the Federal Surveillance State

Although the proposed bills focus 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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SF1299 now moves on to the full Senate for further consideration.