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Public Safety Committee Grounds Drone Legislation

by | May 2, 2017 5:30am
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Posted to: Civil Liberties, Law Enforcement, Legal, Public Safety

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HARTFORD, CT — Connecticut was poised to become the first state in the nation to allow the use of weaponized drones by law enforcement, but the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee decided to let the legislation die Monday.

The bill was amended to allow police to equip drones with lethal and “less than lethal” weapons, but it wasn’t enough to get the committee to debate it and vote on it. North Dakota passed a law in 2015 to allow non-lethal weaponized drones.

“At the end of the day there just wasn’t enough support for the weaponization of drones by police,” Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, said.

The co-chairman of the Public Safety and Security Committee said the legislation would have been a “game changer” for law enforcement. He said he still believes there’s time to come up with legislation that everyone could live with and expects it could be resurrected.

The bill had passed the Judiciary Committee 34-7 at the end of March. It would have increased the criminal penalty for civilians who weaponize drones. The bill also said law enforcement would only be able to use a drone if they obtained a warrant from a judge. Law enforcement opposed the later provision.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut applauded the defeat of the legislation.

“Today, the legislature sent a loud and clear message that Connecticut does not need and will not accept police equipping drones with weapons,” David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said. “The defeat of this police drone weaponization proposal is a victory for public safety and civil rights.”

Verrengia said that since the Judiciary Committee was the one to debate the bill this year there was some uncertainty about whether the weaponized drones would be equipped with cameras, too.

McGuire said part of their concern was related to privacy and exactly what camera equipped drones would be able to capture and use as evidence in court.

“With four Connecticut police departments using drones right now, privacy protections from police drones remain a problem in need of a solution,” McGuire said. “Connecticut does not need police wielding flying weapons in our towns and communities. Our state does need strong police accountability, transparency, and oversight to build public trust in law enforcement.”

Peter Sachs, an attorney and drone hobbyist, wrote an email to all lawmakers on the committee Monday asking them to vote against the proposal.

“It is entirely illogical for this legislative body to consider weaponized drones flown by the public to be unsafe, but consider weaponized drones flown by law enforcement to somehow be ‘magically’ safe,” Sachs wrote. “That is just patently absurd. Although modern drones are generally quite reliable, some are unproven technology to a certain extent. Drones are not even required to have airworthiness certificates. Strap a weapon to one, and the results of any malfunction or crash could be far, far worse.”

Sachs pointed out that even if the state passed the law, a police officer flying the drone might be violating federal aviation regulations and may be subject to civil penalties.

“In addition, the police officer flying the drone, the police agency and its parent governmental entity would risk significant tort liability by flying a weaponized drone that malfunctions or crashes,” Sachs said. “Is it the legislature’s intent to increase the tort liability of police, police agencies, and governmental entities?”

Sachs and other drone hobbyists have been pushing for some state regulation for at least the last three years.

Two years ago a bill that would have banned weaponized drones for police and the public passed the Senate, but was never called in the House. Last year, a similar bill passed the House but not the Senate.

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