AUGUSTA — Police would have to get a warrant in most cases before using unmanned aircraft, or drones, for surveillance on Maine residents, under a bill approved by the Maine Senate on Monday night.
But the vote wasn’t without controversy.
Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee that considered the bill, was livid after the vote, calling it “an insult” because the Senate ignored the committee’s recommendation.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills also opposes the version passed by the Senate.
The Senate passed L.D. 236, sponsored by Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, in a 23-12 vote.
It is expected to face further action in the Senate and House of Representatives this week.
The approved version was put forward by a minority of the Judiciary Committee and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
It would prohibit a law-enforcement agency from using a drone to collect information about a person without a warrant, court order or consent from the person, except in an emergency.
Another amendment adopted Monday would put a moratorium on drone use by law enforcement, except in emergency situations, until July 2015.
“I would say the vast majority of our law-enforcement agents are great, but there are a few that cross a line,” Patrick said on the floor.
“We’ve got to make sure that we protect the average citizen’s rights.”
Under the version of the bill backed by the attorney general and the majority of the Judiciary Committee, including Valentino, a moratorium would have been placed on drone use by law-enforcement until July 2014, giving the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s board of trustees time to develop standards for when drones could be used.
That version was rejected by the Senate in a 21-14 vote, angering Valentino, who called the amendments an insult to the committee process and said drones are “technology we really don’t even have” in Maine.
“We did not approve drones in the majority report – we put in a moratorium,” she said.
“I also want to congratulate everyone who voted for the bill because you voted to arm drones over the state of Maine.”
Valentino was referring to language in her bill that would prohibit a law-enforcement agency from using weaponized drones.
The amended version of the bill prohibits the operation of a drone that uses facial recognition technology or is weaponized, “except for research and development purposes,” according to a bill summary.
There is no evidence that law enforcement has ever used a drone in Maine, and federal aviation rules likely make it illegal for public agencies to deploy drones without federal approval.
Mills opposed the original bill, but proposed many of the elements contained in Valentino’s version, said Timothy Feeley, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, last week.
The Maine Department of Public Safety attracted media attention earlier this year after announcing it bought a toy drone and battery for nearly $365.
Internal documents showed a member of the Maine State Police called it a “great reconnaissance tool,” but the department said then that it hadn’t been used.
Federal Aviation Administration guidelines say hobbyists can fly small, unmanned airplanes below an altitude of 400 feet without its approval.
But if a craft is owned by a public agency, federal credentials must be provided, according to the FAA’s website.
While police use drones in some states, they’re best known for their use in military operations overseas.
President Barack Obama has been criticized for his use of a “kill list” – a list of high-profile terrorists that the president could order targeted in a drone attack, The New York Times has reported.
In a statement after the Senate vote late Monday, ACLU of Maine attorney Oamshri Amarasingham said the Senate version of the bill contains the necessary privacy protections.
“Drones can have very valid uses such as search and rescue in remote areas, but Mainers should not have to live in fear of drones hovering over their backyards watching them and their families,” she said.
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 620-7015 or at [email protected]