Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, is on the homestretch to get a bill approved that protects civil liberties when drones are used by law enforcement agencies to gather information.
Huffman, the chief sponsor of House Bill 2710A, said the measure was endorsed by the Senate on Monday morning by a 23-5 vote, with two excused. The legislation has already been approved by the House and there will be a brief pause in the forward movement so the Department of Justice can tighten some language.
“The Department of Justice wants to change some minor and technical language and I am in agreement with their suggestions,” said Huffman. “So once that is done the bill will go before a conference committee of two House members and two Senators to ensure no significant changes have been made.”
Once the committee signs off on the new language, he said HB 2710A will make a final stop in the House for a concurrence vote.
If approved, the bill will be sent to Gov. John Kitzhaber for a signature that will make it law.
“Nobody has any designs or intentions to kill this bill so I’m pretty comfortable that it will be approved,” said Huffman.
“I feel very good about it because it sets up statewide guidelines and statewide pre-emptions.”
He said the Oregon bill prevents cities from following the example of Seattle and undertaking a program involving drones, officially known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, without a firm set of rules that safeguard due process and privacy rights.
The Seattle Police Department ran into political trouble with the American Civil Liberties Union and other citizen-rights groups after initiating a plan to use two drones that were purchased with federal grant funds.
The program was shut down after the Seattle City Council met with strong opposition over use of the drones with face-recognition software because a uniform set of standards to protect privacy had not been put in place by state officials.
“I feel that we were able to craft our bill to get ahead of the curve and ensure people’s rights were protected — but also to let Insitu and other companies in the industry know that we are willing to work with them,” said Huffman.
The rules he sought pre-empt local government regulation of drones and prohibit law enforcement agencies from using one to obtain information on a suspect without a warrant, in all but emergency circumstances.
He said the bill protects agricultural uses and law enforcement use for search and rescue. In fact, he says the bill will make it easier for business because a statewide law will prevent the implementation of a diverse patchwork of county and city law.
“We wanted to make sure we are sending a clear signal to the drone industry in and around Oregon that Oregon is open for business,” Huffman said.
“We’re not looking to try to restrict drones so it would put a cramp in the industry.”
Limits center on law enforcement surveillance uses. While drones may be used in search and rescue and accident scene analysis, for example, the bill limits how any information can be used.
“If they have a drone up there and are in the process of surveying the accident scene and they see another crime taking place, the rules would be that they would have to have exigent circumstances,” Huffman said.
A judge would decide whether the information is usable, he added.
Under HB 2710A, weaponized UAVs are forbidden, and, beginning in 2016, public agencies will have to register them with the Oregon Department of Aviation.
The legislation also provides protections against violations of property rights by establishing a framework for trespassing.
Intentional interference with drone operation is criminalized. Penalties will be imposed on private citizens who use drones to eavesdrop, wiretap or stalk.
Last year, President Barack Obama signed a budget bill requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to expand the use of unmanned aircrafts into American airspace by 2016, and to develop regulations for testing and licensing of commercial drones.
That move set off a national debate about the potential of government agencies to “spy” on private citizens and infringe on their right to privacy.
Huffman said drones need to be used “appropriately, respectfully and constitutionally” so that images gathered by the UAVS that fly high enough to be unseen are not used inappropriately. He said government agencies need to be prevented from playing out a “Big Brother is watching you” scenario with private citizens.
HB 2710A requires that information gained from the flight of a drone be destroyed unless needed for criminal prosecution.