In this 2011 photo, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott (right) shows off the department’s remote-controlled surveillance helicopters.
Last month, thanks to the S.C House of Representatives, the Palmetto State joined more than 40 states trying to restrict the use of drones by state and local law enforcement agencies, arguing drone technology has outpaced laws governing their use and threatens basic privacy rights.
Pushed by reliably conservative Republicans, the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act would forbid state and local law enforcement agencies from deploying drones to gather evidence without a search warrant from a judge, except in cases of extreme risk to public safety.
But the bill also enjoys the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, which in 2013 supported similar legislation proposed in at least 43 states and enacted in nine.
The bill passed the S.C. House unanimously.
“I was a little surprised that something this comprehensive passed without any opposition, but I think that’s [a] testament to what a lot of us are hearing from our constituents,” says Rep. Dan Hamilton (R-Greenville), who introduced the bill in the House.
He says his legislation was prompted by Congress’ 2012 passage of the Federal Aviation Agency Modernization Act, which introduced new federal rules for drones, and by drone companies looking to develop the domestic market as overseas wars wind down.
“That just meant there’s going to be more of them in the skies,” Hamilton says. “The FAA’s job is to make sure the skies are safe, but they aren’t really set up to make sure that our privacy is protected. They’ve left it up to the states to come up with privacy regulations and laws.”
He adds, “It was a very bipartisan effort. The ACLU was on board and helped throughout the whole process. Of course, I’m a Republican, so that doesn’t happen a lot with my bills.”
Victoria Middleton, director of ACLU of South Carolina, praises Hamilton and his fellow bill-backers for getting out front on a rapidly developing issue. “Anyone who’s been paying attention — to the proliferation of surveillance cameras and the buzz about drones, or to the scope of NSA spying on citizens — knows that technology has outstripped regulation and privacy protection,” she writes in an email. “We’ve found local law enforcement unresponsive, on the whole, to our requests for information about their procurement, use, storage, security handling or the records they are obtaining.”
Here in the Midlands, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the Columbia Police Department each debuted an unmanned helicopter equipped with a camera in 2011.
Columbia Police Department spokesperson Jennifer Timmons says the department would have to read the legislation before determining whether it would impact current operations. She said the department’s “camera ‘copter” is currently being repaired, but is used in gathering evidence with a search warrant and assisting officers in search and rescue operations.
Meanwhile, Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, says his group hasn’t formally discussed the legislation yet, but they do believe that drones have a role to play in law enforcement. At the same time, he said, law enforcement does need to be mindful of people’s privacy concerns.
H. 3514 has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has been referred to a subcommittee. It’s not yet scheduled for further discussion, according to a committee staffer.
As of yet, no one has introduced state legislation to regulate the private sector use of drones, which is where South Carolina has seen its most publicized drone activity. In 2012 in Orangeburg County, an animal rights group attempted to send a drone over a pigeon shoot, a controversial event in which live birds are launched into the air and promptly shot, “to legally videotape the massive cruelty that will unfold,” as a press release from Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK) put it.
Shortly after SHARK launched its drone, the cantankerous hunters turned their shotguns on the unmanned flying machine and dealt it the same fate as the pigeons.
Hamilton says legislation restricting private-sector use of drones will be forthcoming.
To better appreciate the confusion arising from the gap between drone capabilities and regulations on their use, look to the frozen lakes of Minnesota, where last week the FAA spiked Lakemaid Lager’s plans to deliver cases of beer to the ice-fishing shacks that pop up by the thousands during that state’s long winters.
Shortly after Lakemaid’s beautifully conducted maiden delivery, which relied solely on a shack’s coordinates for navigation, the FAA informed the brewer that it had violated several regulations, including a ban on commercial deliveries via drone.
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