OLYMPIA — A bill regulating the use of unmanned drones in Washington state cleared the House Public Safety committee Thursday after heated public testimony about privacy rights and crime prevention.
House Bill 1771 sponsored by Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, would require agencies using or buying drones to get approval from the Legislature or local governments. Drones could only be used with a warrant or in emergencies. The legislation doesn’t address private use.
Taylor said law-enforcement officials urged him to offer the bill as they are interested in using drones, but uncomfortable with the lack of rules governing them. Bill co-sponsor Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane, said he signed on because of public concerns about violations of privacy.
“This issue is really about freedom,” Shea said.
Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union testified in favor of the bill, arguing that drones need to be used responsibly. Michael German said the government shouldn’t stop law enforcement from using new technology, but lawmakers need to be aware of the “unprecedented capabilities” drones offer in tracking people.
“It’s an awful lot of tracking in our daily lives that we want to make sure is only happening when it’s absolutely necessary,” German said.
But Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, questioned whether a law regulating drones is necessary, given that surveillance from helicopters is largely unregulated. James McMahon, executive director of the Washington State Association of County Officials, said he opposed the bill for the same reason. But Shankar Narayan, an ACLU lobbyist, argued that drones are becoming more accessible than helicopters and will soon be used frequently.
Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, called the legislation unnecessary. He said he doesn’t know any law-enforcement officer who would use a “dragon-sized” camera to track people without a warrant.
“This bill would eliminate [unmanned drones],” Barker said. “And if that’s the point, the bill should just state that.”