AUGUSTA — A bill that would regulate the use of drones in Maine could go to a study group, a destination that privacy advocates say could delay action on rules that are already outpaced by technology.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, is part of a nationwide effort by the American Civil Liberties Union to raise concerns about unchecked snooping by unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee tabled the bill Thursday after Attorney General Janet Mills testified that the legislation would be too broad and could prohibit the use of drones for news gathering, mapping, weather monitoring or private investigations.

Mills said she shares concerns that unfettered use of drones could lead to unwanted surveillance on citizens or misuse by law enforcement, but the current proposal would be difficult to defend in court.

She said she was concerned that the bill would prevent the Department of Public Safety from using drones in search-and-rescue operations.

Mills recommended that lawmakers study the proposal further by sending it to the Criminal Law Advisory Committee or the Criminal Justice Academy for review.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said sending the bill out for more study would delay action that is needed now.

Bellows said her organization would support a moratorium on drone use while interested parties work with the Judiciary Committee to find a solution.

Bellows said that assigning a bill to a study committee is often “a legislative tactic to kill a bill.”

“We believe we should set limits on drone use now,” she said. “Our laws have already failed to keep pace with the technology.”

Bellows said she believes that the Judiciary Committee wants to act soon. She cited broad support among legislators, as well.

The tabling doesn’t necessarily mean that the bill is destined for a study group.

Maine is one of 21 states that are considering legislation to regulate the use of drones, according to the ACLU. Stateline reported this month that nine law enforcement agencies in six states have been authorized to use drones, while nine more have applied to the FAA to do so.

The Maine Department of Public Safety bought a drone recently for about $300, but the department’s deputy chief said it was just for the sake of “curiosity.”

The Portland Press Herald reported that police could break federal regulations if they deploy the drone.

Concerns about drone use have united interest groups behind the bill, including civil libertarians, acolytes of Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a medical-marijuana trade group and an anti-war group.

 

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

On Twitter: @stevemistler