AUGUSTA, Maine — The state Legislature is poised to pass into law a bill requiring police to obtain a search warrant before using unmanned aerial vehicles or drones to collect evidence in any civilian criminal investigation.

Following a 23-12 vote in the Senate Monday night, the House voted 83-65 in favor of the measure Tuesday afternoon before tabling it so amendments making clear that research and development on UAVs by private companies and not connected to law enforcement activities is allowed without a warrant.

At least one company in Maine is pursuing contracts with the federal government and other entities on UAVs it is in the process of developing.

The bill, LD 236, allows police to use the vehicles for emergency law enforcement activities as well as for search and rescue efforts.

The bill also prohibits the use of facial recognition software on drones and disallows police to weaponize the vehicles. Again both technologies would be allowed for research and development by private companies working on drones.

In a series of roll call votes Monday night the Senate first rejected the Legislature’s Judiciary Committees majority report, which would have placed a moratorium on drone use by police for one year while a committee organized by the state’s criminal justice academy studied the matter.

That majority report was supported by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

Mills said Monday the state and federal constitutions already protect Maine citizens against warrantless searchers, regardless of the method of surveillance.

Lawmakers in favor of the majority report said it was intended to give the Legislature time to develop all the adequate protection citizens expect and that the trustees of the state’s Criminal Justice Academy, the state police academy, would report back with policy recommendations in 2014.

Lawmakers also noted that currently there was only one, very basic and experimental drone owned by the State Police but it had not been used for any real-world law enforcement.

“Law enforcement said we really don’t have a use for drones right now,” Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel said in supporting the majority report. “You may be creating a problem that doesn’t exist right now. I think sometimes we have esoteric debates in here, we tilt at windmills. We develop new speed limits for the Batmobile even though we don’t own the Batmobile.”

But others saw it differently and said several other bills passed by the Legislature this session including those that address mobile phones or remote cameras on private property all sided with the ideal of police getting a warrant first.

“We have sided every time with warrants,” said Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, “stating clearly that the Fourth Amendment does apply to new technologies. Flying cameras should require a warrant just like non-flying cameras should.”

In the 23-12 vote the Senate adopted the minority report on the bill favored by civil liberty advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“With this vote, the Maine Senate recognized the importance of protecting Mainers’ privacy,” Oamshri Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine said in a prepared statement. “Drones can have very valid uses such as search and rescue in remote areas, but Mainers should not have to live in fear of drones hovering over their backyards watching them and their families.”

The original version of the bill was offered by state Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford.

Patrick said he was satisfied with the vote Monday and believes the public was starting to pay greater attention to privacy issues.

“Having warrants in the bill is an important thing in light of what’s going on in the national news with the NSA and all the different fiascoes that’s going on,” Patrick said Tuesday. “Citizens have had warrants for over 200 years and it seems to work. Although technology has been changing over the last 50 years at a rapid pace, the one constant has been making sure you have a warrant before you make your move.”

An amendment to the bill that was also approved late Monday sets a two year moratorium on the use of drones in Maine by police, Patrick said.

The House will look to match that language with amendments — possibly Wednesday — as lawmakers take final actions on the bill before sending it to Gov. Paul LePage.

The issue of drone use by civilian law enforcement agencies has also drawn the attention of lawmakers in Washington. Several there, including Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Austin Scott, R-Ga., have co-sponsored bills requiring warrants when drones are used by police.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.