AUGUSTA, Maine — In a narrow decision, lawmakers accepted an amendment to a bill offered by Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, that could allow police to use a drone without a search warrant.
In a 7-6 vote on May 1, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee sided with Maine Attorney General Janet Mills on the issue of how police can employ unmanned aerial vehicles in criminal investigations.
The bill, as approved by the committee, sets a one-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement in Maine, except in emergencies, while the state’s Criminal Justice Academy studies drone use and issues a report to the Legislature in 2014, including suggested protocols for police use.
Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, the committee’s Senate chairwoman, said no law enforcement agencies in Maine are using drones, so the moratorium wouldn’t affect current activity.
“What we felt was the moratorium safeguards the public now,” Valentino said. “The moratorium does have exceptions in it for emergency situations.”
Those situations would include search-and-rescue operations or other situations in which an individual or the public’s safety was in imminent danger, she said.
Valentino said the legislation allows those developing unmanned aerial vehicles in Maine, either for the military, law enforcement or the private sector, to continue research-and-development efforts.
The committee had to consider the economic interests of companies that were working in that sector and also what the development of an unmanned aerial vehicle industry could mean for the state in the future, Valentino said.
Mills said the effort to sort out how Maine should regulate drones is an important one. It points out that the kinds of drone surveillance people find the most offensive and intrusive are already constrained by existing law, she said.
Mills delivered a copy of a 30-page search warrant to help drive home the point that domestic law enforcement couldn’t currently use a drone to trail a person.
Most search warrants are specific to place and do not necessarily allow potential suspects to be tracked, she said. Another issue that could be covered in existing law is whether incidental footage could be collected and later used against a person other than a suspect as detailed in a warrant.
All of those issues would be addressed by the academy’s board, which includes civilians not in law enforcement, Mills said.
Those opposed to leaving police free to use drones without warrants, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the measure doesn’t go far enough to protect citizens’ constitutional rights. It also doesn’t protect against an unwarranted invasion of a person’s privacy, said Patrick, the original bill’s author.
Patrick said Tuesday he would have preferred the bill to have come out of committee requiring a search warrant whenever police wanted to use drones in any criminal investigation. “I would have wanted it just the opposite,” he said.
He credited the committee with spending plenty of time with the bill and working hard to reach a compromise on an issue that was emotional for many involved.
Patrick said he believed laws would be passed in the next few years to limit the use of drones, based on what kind of usage of the aircraft Maine sees on the private and public side of things.
He said he favors police getting a warrant to use drones when they are “looking for something” in a criminal investigation, “just like they do now [for other searches].”
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said the warrant requirement was important to her organization.
“The big question is whether or not there should be a warrant requirement for domestic drone surveillance,” Bellows said. “The ACLU thinks that law enforcement should have a warrant before spying on Mainers with a drone and the [attorney general] does not. That’s the one issue where we cannot compromise.”
Bellows said letting the Criminal Justice Academy set the rules on drone use in Maine was “letting the police police themselves and is not sufficient to protect the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution — protection against unwarranted search and seizure and that includes surveillance by drones.”
The bill will come to the Senate floor within the next few weeks.