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Rhode Island Bill would Ban Law Enforcement Use of Drones without Warrant

A bill in the Rhode Island State Legislature would restrict the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) by government officials, ending their use by law enforcement without a warrant.

Introduced by Rep Blake Filippi, House Bill 5454 (H5454) would, among other things, prohibit law enforcement use drones by requiring a warrant for “any” use, surveillance or not. It would also render any information gathered through drone surveillance without a warrant inadmissible in court.

H5454 is different from other drone surveillance legislation in that it has no exceptions, whereas other bills allow for emergencies such as weather or looking for a missing person. This avoids what many privacy advocates refer to as mission creep, where the exceptions are used as pretexts to make intrusions into the privacy of individual citizens as common as before. H5454’s language preemptively eliminates this possibility.

The bill reads, in part:

The potential benefit to law enforcement and criminal justice from the use of UAVs without a warrant first issuing is far outweighed by the degradation to the fundamental right to privacy secured by the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the state of Rhode Island that will result from law enforcement’s use of UAVs without first obtaining a warrant;

OffNow project executive director Mike Maharrey has noted that bills such as this have significant ramifications at the federal level because Rhode Island D.C. is pushing and funding drone use at the state level. He noted that the federal government serves as the primary engine behind the expansion of drone surveillance carried out by states and local communities. The Department of Homeland Security issues large grants to local governments so they can purchase drones. “Those grants, in and of themselves, represent an unconstitutional expansion of power.”

“The feds want to push these on the states, and if the states refuse, it’ll foil their plan,” he said. “They already spy on Americans so much that Rand Paul said it numbered in the ‘Gazillions’ after a secret meeting with intelligence officials. If the feds can get the states to start buying up and running drones over our cities, they’ll certainly want access to all that surveillance information in the future. It’s important that states begin drawing a line in the sand now – no aerial spying here.”

“If enough states pass bills like these, it’ll foil their plans before they ever take off.”

H5454 has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, where it will need to pass before the full House can consider it.

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