State will study use of drones

PHOENIX — Police in Arizona remain free to use drones — assuming they have them — to spy on people.

Rep. Tom Forese, R-Chandler, voluntarily gutted his measure which would have required police to first obtain a warrant from a court before using the unmanned aircraft to gather evidence. 

HB 2269 also would have made any evidence gathered without a warrant inadmissible in court.

Instead, the legislation approved Thursday by the House on a 54-5 vote creates a committee to study the issue for the balance of the year and report back in December.

Forese said the issues involved are far more complex than simply limiting police use of the drones.

He pointed out the concerns expressed during hearings by Lyle Mann, director of the Peace Officers Standards and Training Board. 

Mann said there are many valid reasons for police to be able to use drones without first having to go to court.

Beyond that, he pointed out that many police departments already use helicopters. He said the only difference with a drone is that it has a camera on board that indiscriminately records everything.

On the other side of the equation, Forese said if lawmakers are going to restrict the use of drones they need to look beyond police.

“What about the toy you can buy now for a couple of hundred bucks that’s in essence a small drone?’’ he asked. “I can fly it and look at all my neighbors with a camera.’’

Forese also faced opposition from some lawmakers who feared this kind of legislation could undermine the bid by Arizona to become one of the six Federal Aviation Administration sites to test for unmanned drones for civilian and military use. 

Congress wants to ultimately allow pilotless aircraft not only to do low-level surveillance but eventually operate into the
airspace currently limited to manned aircraft 

Forese said even if lawmakers do impose restrictions on police use of drones, some exceptions may be appropriate.

Even his original version of HB 2269 would have allowed police to use drones without a warrant in cases where the Department of Homeland Security determines there is “credible intelligence’’ of a high risk of a terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization. 

It also would have permitted their use in cases where “swift action is needed’’ to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage of property, forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or prevent the destruction of evidence.

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