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Legislature should pass bill limiting use of drone planes for surveillance

January 7, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
I don't know about you, but I don't much like the idea of Big Brother watching me from the friendly skies.

That's why I was glad to see the Associated Press story this weekend about the plans of Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, to introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session that would put limitations on the use of unmanned planes for law enforcement.

Last year the Nelson County Sheriff's Department borrowed a Predator drone plane from Grand Forks Air Force Base and used it to pinpoint the movements of Rodney Brossart and his family, who were in a standoff with the authorities near Lakota. The original dispute was over the Brossarts' refusal to return some cattle that had wandered onto their property.

According to various reports, some of the Brossarts confronted the sheriff and sheriff's deputies with guns and rifles when the sheriff tried to make the initial arrest. At that point the sheriff asked to borrow the Predator drone, which helped him track the movements of the couple and their seven children and determine when it would be safe to make an arrest. No one was hurt when the Brossarts were taken into custody.

That may well have been an appropriate use of a drone, since it was used for a limited purpose to minimize the risk of injury or death.

But there's good reason to fear what could happen if law enforcement begin making wide use of drone planes to spy on the general public and to detect suspicious activity. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police don't require a warrant for surveillance of anything visible from the air, including on private property, Do we really want the drone plane to catch us speeding? Do we want the drone to get up close and personal photos of some unsuspecting citizen who decides to get frisky with his partner behind the bushes in their backyard?

The AP reports several other state legislatures are looking at putting limits on drone planes. Predictably, at least some law enforcement, including Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney, oppose putting limits on drones. The AP quoted Laney as saying that drones are no different than other types of surveillance.

I disagree with Laney and am very much in favor of Becker's bill. I hope it will pass and this year's legislature will rein in this great threat to the people's right to privacy.


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