House bill would scrutinize S.C. police spy drones

jmonk@thestate.comMay 14, 2013 

— The extent to which South Carolina’s skies someday may be filled with the soft buzz of unmanned drone surveillance aircraft operated by state and local police agencies could well be determined by a bill now making its way through the S.C. House.

“There are a host of constitutional rights that could be violated with the use of drones – the right to privacy, the right to be free of unreasonable searches, the right to have due process,” said House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, who is a bill co-sponsor and wants to restrict their use to prevent abuses.

The bill already has attracted supporters and those who might want to change it.

“We aren’t opposed to the bill, but it’s long – six pages and some 4,300 words – and we want to study it before it goes any further,” Jeff Moore of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association said Tuesday after the House Judiciary Commission put off discussing the bill until May 28.

Moore said his group and the State Law Enforcement Division – which has manned helicopters but no drones – asked Judiciary Committee officials to delay Tuesday’s debate until they could study the bill. Also, bill sponsor Rep. Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville, could not be present for the discussion.

Currently, very few S.C. law agencies have drones. The S.C. Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Highway Patrol, does not use drones. Neither does the S.C. Forestry Commission, which oversees some 13 million acres of public and private S.C. woodland. Moore, who is in touch with each of the state’s 46 sheriffs, said he only knows of one sheriff – Richland County’s Leon Lott – who uses an unmanned surveillance aircraft.

But there are likely to be more and more stealthy sky snoops in our future, officials agreed.

Surveillance drones – and land surveillance cameras like the hundreds now in use in Columbia’s Five Points entertainment district – are becoming prevalent in modern life. Increasingly, multi-million-dollar military drones equipped with powerful spy cameras and missiles are a fixture in America’s overseas wars against terrorists.

As the technology has become cheaper, more and more U.S. police agencies seek to use them. And libertarians, fearing invasions of privacy, have pushed for government regulations on their use. Three states – Florida, Idaho and Virginia – have enacted drone restrictions.

The S.C. bill sets out strict standards governing the use of a drone, both before and after its flights. For one thing, the law would ban any sort of weapon from being mounted on a South Carolina police drone.

Also, in most cases, police officers would have to seek the approval of a judge before sending a drone up, showing why its use would be justified. And after a drone was used, officers would have to keep records on the results of their surveillance. Numerous sections of the bill would prevent law enforcement from keeping any drone-obtained personal information not relevant to a criminal investigation.

“They can still use drones, but there are safeguards,” Delleney said.

Other provisions of the bill require that any agency using drones make a yearly detailed report – edited to delete personal information – to top state officials. Those reports would be publicly available.

Judiciary Committee member Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, said that until recently, he would have thought that only “people with a heightened sense of paranoia” would want to strictly regulate the use of drones by law enforcement, as this bill does.

“But with the events in Washington lately, with the IRS targeting political groups, maybe the right-wing guys in the tin-foil hats have a point,” Sellers said.

Moore said he understands that many people are fearful of the new technology.

“Everyone is scared someone is going to be looking in their windows,” Moore said. “But we certainly understand everybody’s concerns about privacy.”

Law officials won’t object to reasonable regulations but want to be sure they aren’t hamstrung in emergency situations when a drone’s use might spell life or death, he said.

“We just want to make sure it doesn’t tie our hands too severely,” Moore said.

Drones can save money, he said.

“It’s a lot cheaper to put an unmanned aircraft in the sky than a helicopter,” Moore said. “And they are small.”

Judiciary Committee member Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, a law enforcement supporter, said he wants to be sure police aren’t unnecessarily restricted.

Judiciary Committee member Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk, D-Kershaw, said she wants to learn more about the bill.

Although there’s a chance the bill could pass the House this legislative session, there’s probably not enough time for it to make it through the Senate.

Lott said drones can help police in numerous ways, such as help catch fleeing criminals and find lost children and disoriented adults.

In November, Lott sent up his battery-operated drone helicopter to help deputies search for four fleeing bank robbers on Two Notch Road. The device is equipped with a camera that sends back real-time black-and-white high-definition video.

A drone has the advantage of not placing an officer’s life in danger, he said.

He said some fears over privacy may not be realistic.

“What personal information can you gain from a drone that you can’t gain from a helicopter or plane already being operated?”

Delleney said the future may give police the chance to operate drones that are almost invisible.

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