RICHMOND, Va. (July 8, 2015) – A Virginia law that permanently restricts the use of drones by state and local law enforcement went into effect last week. The new law not only establishes important privacy protections at the state level, it will also thwart the federal surveillance state.
Virginia was the first state in the U.S. to establish any restrictions on drones when former Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a two year moratorium on the use of unmanned aircraft in 2013. HB2125 and SB1301 effectively replaced that temporary moratorium with permanent restrictions on drone use, an important second step towards ending mass, warrantless surveillance by drones in the state of Virginia.
HB2125 passed through the state House unanimously by a 100-0 vote, and then passed through the state Senate by a 37-1 vote. SB130 passed through the state Senate by a 21-17 vote, and then passed through the state House unanimously by a 99-0 vote. They were signed into law by Gov. McAuliffe on March 27.
These new law requires a “state or local government department, agency, or instrumentality having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations,” to obtain a warrant before deploying a drone with only a few exceptions, like Blue and Amber alerts. Weaponized drones are also expressly banned. Other exceptions to the warrant requirement include when a law enforcement agency determines a drone necessary “to alleviate an immediate danger to any person,” training exercises and when a person consents to a search. Evidence obtained through the utilization of an unmanned aircraft system in violation of the law is not admissible in any criminal or civil proceeding.
Impact on the Federal Surveillance State
Although the 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.