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Virginia Drone Regulations First in Nation, Other States Could Follow

by Michael Higham, published

 UAV drone hexarotor flying in blue sky by Stephane Bidouze via UAV drone hexarotor flying in blue sky by Stephane Bidouze via

The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support on Tuesday to put the first state regulations on domestic drone use. If signed by Governor Bob McDonnell, Virginia would place a moratorium on law enforcement drone use until July 1, 2015. Tweet the news: Tweet

The Virginia House bill, HB 2012, passed 83-16 with one delegate absent. The State Senate version, SB 1331, passed 36-2. Section one of both bills reads:

"No state or local agency or organization having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations, including but not limited to the Department of State Police, and no department of law enforcement as defined in § 15.2-836 of any county, city, or town shall utilize an unmanned aircraft system before July 1, 2015"

Section two of the House bill offers certain exceptions to the domestic use of drones; only if the state issues an Amber Alert or conducts a search and rescue operation may law enforcement deploy a drone. Weaponized drones are outright banned from usage.

The Senate bill also includes language that allows state or local law enforcement to use drones "if its deployment is necessary to protect life, health, or property."

Virginia's future with drone regulation is now in the hands of Governor Bob McDonnell. Last May, Gov. McDonnell expressed strong support of its use for law enforcement, albeit, on a local radio show:

"I think we ought to be using technology to make law enforcement more productive, cuts down on manpower and also more safe, that’s why we use it on the battlefield. If you’re keeping police officers safe, making it more productive and saving money … it’s absolutely the right thing to do."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) played a vital role in the legislation by gaining bipartisan support. Republican Delegate Benjamin Cline introduced the House version of the bill while Democratic Senator Donald McEachin introduced the Senate version. Del. Cline recognizes that the root of the issue is due process rights and judicial involvement. Tweet at the ACLU: Tweet

US News quoted Virginia Director of the ACLU, Claire Gastanaga, saying that the legislation, "preserves the status quo, and allows us to go slow, and gives us the time to show everyone why we'd want to require a warrant to use this technology." Gastanaga stated that reaching a moratorium was also the furthest middle-ground that lawmakers on both sides of the issue could reach.

Montana is also proposing drone regulation. Republican State Senator Matthew Rosendale is leading the legislation that would require warrants for law enforcement use. The state Senate also supports the ban on evidence obtained by drone surveillance from being used in court.

Oklahoma State Rep. Paul Wesselhoft is collaborating with the ACLU for state regulations similar to Montana and Virginia. Rep. Wesselhoft's main concern is privacy:

Privacy is not a partisan issue, and I am confident we will find bipartisan agreement that our laws should keep pace with technology. Our legislation gives some protection of personal liberties when it comes to drone technology. Tweet quote: Tweet

Oregon, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Florida, and Maine are all considering state regulations on unmanned aerial vehicles.

Controversy over use in foreign affairs has continued, especially now that NBC leaked the Department of Justice white paper on targeted drone strikes. Domestic and foreign drone use are different, but both questionably violate due process rights.

Although Virginia is only pushing for a moratorium on drone use, the point is to continue the conversation on better regulations. Other states may follow suit if Virginia's governor decides to sign the bill.

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