A pair of bills to try to control drone aircraft in Maine’s skies will go before a legislative committee this week.

One of the measures is largely a repeat of a bill vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage two years ago. Like that bill, the measure would ban law enforcement agencies from buying drones without local government approval and also ban the use of drones by police unless they have a search warrant. The law includes a moratorium on all use of drones by police agencies until July 1, 2017.

After vetoing the measure, LePage said his administration would come up with its policy for the use of drones, but hasn’t forwarded any bills for the Legislature to consider.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said it will again back the bill to limit police use of drones, which will be the subject of a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The committee meeting is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. in the State House, Room 438. Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, is sponsoring the bill, L.D. 25, an Act to Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Uses.

Russell said her bill would require law enforcement agencies to get a warrant from a judge before they can use a drone in a criminal investigation. Without that third-party form of checks and balances, Russell said expanding technology such as aerial drones opens the door to abuse by police and law enforcement.

“People have an expectation that there will be a warrant in (a criminal) investigation and that certain protocols around that warrant will be followed,” Russell said. “You can’t set aside the Constitution just because there is new technology.”


Russell said she wants to be clear that she is not opposed to the use of drones for useful purposes such as search and rescue, but if drones are going to be used by police and drug investigators, there needs to be some type of oversight.

“My bill is focused on law enforcement,” she added.

Oami Amarasingham, the public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said the law needs to adapt to changing technology.

She said law enforcement agencies can take to the air for investigations by flying a plane or helicopter, but they generally can’t stay airborne as long as drones. In addition, she said a plane circling above or a helicopter hovering over someone’s house is going to be noticed more than a small drone that probably can’t be heard by people under surveillance below.

“The Fourth Amendment didn’t contemplate drones,” Amarasingham said, referring to the constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. “We’re trying to get the law to catch up.”

The second bill up before the committee Tuesday is dramatically broader and even its sponsor admits it’s unlikely to go anywhere as drafted.


The bill from Rep. Russell J. Black, R-Wilton, would simply ban anyone from flying a drone over private property without written permission of the landowner. Violators could face a fine of up to $500.

Black said he put the bill in at the request of the Maine Farm Bureau, which heard from farmers who were concerned about drones flying over their property.

Black said the farmers were worried that other farmers might want to spy on their fields – to learn which crops farmers had planted, how they were growing and when they might be ready to harvest. For instance, a farmer growing corn, he said, might gain a competitive advantage over another corn farmer if he can get his crop to market faster.

But Black said that after he put his bill in, he learned that individuals don’t control the airspace over their land – the government does.

Still, Black said, the measure could be a jumping-off point for a discussion about landowners’ rights. For instance, he said, a farmer may not be able to restrict the airspace over his or her land, but might be able to control if a drone flying above can take pictures or video of the private land below.

“It’s really a privacy issue,” he said.

Amarasingham said the ACLU of Maine might speak in favor of Black’s proposal on Tuesday as well.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.