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N.C. Opinions: Winston-Salem

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State bill on drones would protect citizen privacy

From an editorial published in the Winston-Salem Journal on Sunday:

As the law-enforcement technology steadily improves, society must be on guard to ensure it doesn’t violate our constitutional rights to privacy and due process of law. The development of drone technology over the last 10 years, first as a military tool and now for law enforcement, poses just such a challenge to lawmakers. A bipartisan group of state representatives filed a bill recently that would protect citizen privacy while still giving local governments room to make their own decisions about the use of drones.

State officials say drones are not in use by their law-enforcement agencies. The city of Monroe has seriously considered buying a drone, although it has tabled its plans for now.

Local governments have the power of the purse in deciding whether to allocate money for drones. They should think long and hard before doing so, and demand that their law-enforcement agencies demonstrate an obvious need for this equipment to ensure public safety.

At the state level, House Bill 312, The Preserving Privacy Act of 2013, says that law-enforcement officers must gain a search warrant before they use drones and other unmanned aerial equipment to seek visual evidence of criminal activity or persons sought by the law.

That common-sense proposal is a reasonable extension of current law, established in light of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. If police want to enter homes or businesses to seek criminal evidence, they need a warrant. Using a drone to collect that evidence from above should be no different.

The bill provides a number of important exceptions to the warrant requirement. They are exceptions similar to those that would apply when law enforcement seeks to physically enter a residence.

In this case, drones could be used when law enforcement has solid reason to believe that it is necessary to avoid imminent harm to life, to property, to evidence in a criminal trial, or if there is imminent danger of a suspect escaping.

Such an exception, unfortunately, can provide abusive law enforcement with a huge loophole to undermine the purpose of the legal protections. But the bill would require any such drone surveillance to be documented and for the filing of those documents with judicial officials within 48 hours. We hope local officials will be diligent in their judicious use of this technology, should they acquire it.

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