End the Lie

Virginia Senate committee backs two-year moratorium on government and law enforcement drones

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By End the Lie

Virginia State Capitol in 2003, before renovations (Image credit: Anderskev/Wikimedia Commons)

Virginia State Capitol in 2003, before renovations (Image credit: Anderskev/Wikimedia Commons)

According to reports, a Virginia Senate committee has approved a two-year moratorium on drone use by both law enforcement and government agencies as drones continue to be used in the U.S. and will be used abroad indefinitely.

This move is especially interesting given that the Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell called drone use in the state “great” and “the right thing to do,” citing the supposed success of drones in warzones.

While it might be somewhat surprising, there is currently a legislative push against the unrestricted use of drones at both the state and federal levels. How successful these efforts will be remains to be seen.

The measure in Virginia was approved by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and according to the Associated Press is similar to one pending in the Virginia House of Delegates.

However, this is not an outright ban by any means. State lawmakers were considering bills imposing regulations on drone use which would have, among other things, required law enforcement to obtain a warrant before deploying a drone.

Law enforcement groups unsurprisingly staunchly opposed the proposed bills while those who supported them said the use of drones threaten the privacy rights of Virginians.

The moratorium allows legislators to study the issue for two years before having to decide on the bills.

While industry groups have called on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ignore the legitimate privacy concerns of citizens, the FAA has actually delayed the selection of drone host cities for just that reason.

Still, the Pentagon listed 110 potential drone bases on U.S. soil in June of last year, the Oregon Army National Guard and others seek to launch drones from a public airport and the Department of Homeland Security has embraced small spy drones.

Opposition to drones is more widespread than many might think and is bringing together groups that, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch puts it, “don’t typically find consensus.”

In the case of Virginia, groups opposing the use of drones include the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), various tea party groups, the Farm Bureau and an agricultural business council.

The Times-Dispatch reports that Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, the executive director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, said that drones can currently follow people almost anywhere without a warrant, adding that the homes, businesses or backyards of Virginians should not be under 24 hour surveillance.

“It’s leading us closer to a Big Brother society,” Gastanaga said. “The citizens of Virginia want a policy that protects their privacy.”

Unfortunately, the law is slippery on the subject and with a federal court in Wisconsin ruling that covert digital surveillance cameras can be placed on private property without a warrant, it doesn’t seem all that likely that the courts will block invasive drone surveillance.

While John Jones of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association told the Times-Dispatch, “We recognize there are civil liberties issues,” he emphasized that law enforcement views the use of drones “as an officer safety issue.”

One can only guess how these bills will fare in the Virginia legislature after the moratorium expires.

UPDATE: On March 25, 2013 the governor offered amendments to the moratorium which “would allow for law-enforcement uses such as search-and-rescue operations for people who are missing or other cases involving those known to be in imminent danger.” The amendment would similarly ensure that “the legislation would not stop the use of unmanned aircraft by institutions of higher education and other research endeavors.”

UPDATE 2: On April 3, 2013 the legislature reconvened to vote on the amendments. No updates on this specific legislation have been published at the time of this update.

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2 Responses to Virginia Senate committee backs two-year moratorium on government and law enforcement drones

  1. Erica February 4, 2013 at 5:40 PM

    Drones are ‘great’ and the ‘right thing to do’ because they work in war zones? When did the state of Virginia become a war zone? While I’m glad he put it off, I certainly don’t think this man accurately represents the people. We don’t need more government interference in our life. I want a governor who upholds the Constitution and doesn’t play games with Washington. Vote this guy out!

  2. Anonymous February 5, 2013 at 12:47 AM

    at least someone’s doing something (though I don’t think it will result in a victory really)


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