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Law Enforcement Officials Raise Concerns About Drone Bill

State Rep. Lance Gooden’s bill to prevent unmanned drones from capturing indiscriminate surveillance — a measure that has more than 80 co-authors in the House — is facing opposition from some law enforcement officials.

Micheal Cincienne of Absolute Aerospace and Texas A&M Corpus Christi, engineering student Adam Ersepke, and lab coordinator Jack Edward Esparza carry the University’s RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle, otherwise known as a drone, back to the  command center after a test flight over the Kennedy Ranch near Sarita, Texas on January 18, 2013.

State Rep. Lance Gooden’s bill to prevent unmanned drones from capturing indiscriminate surveillance — a measure that has more than 80 co-authors in the House — might hit the lower chamber next week.

But the bill is facing opposition from some law enforcement officials who suggest that local police departments and other authorities should be exempt from the measure.  

“We are working with the author of the bill to obtain an exception for law enforcement,” said Arlington Police Sgt. Christopher Cook.

Gooden, R-Terrell, said such an exception is unlikely.

“My feeling is that [a law enforcement exception] was never communicated in any of the hearings,” Gooden said. “It’s disingenuous to bring those new concerns a month after the fact.”  

House Bill 912 would make it a Class C misdemeanor to use an “unmanned vehicle or aircraft” to capture video or photographs of private property without the consent of the property’s owner or occupant. It would be an additional penalty to possess, display or distribute an image or video captured by an illegally operating drone.

Gooden said he worked closely with local authorities while the bill was in committee, adding exceptions that would allow police to use drones to document crime scenes, resolve a hostage situation or search for a missing person. Other modifications to the bill permit state authorities to use drones to survey the scene of a catastrophe, preserve public safety over a hazardous spill or assist firefighters.

Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck said he understands personal privacy concerns, but he said the Federal Aviation Administration gave his local authorities permission to fly an unmanned aircraft. “We think it’s a terrific tool for us and for public safety throughout the state,” he said. “It is not, and will never be, used to spy on people.”

Cook said that as written, the bill would prohibit numerous public safety uses for small unmanned aircraft systems. He added that a lot of urban police departments have manned helicopter systems that don’t bump up against such restrictions.

“We believe that the current case law is clear, and that nothing changes with an unmanned system,” he said.

But state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington and a co-author of the measure, said that in his opinion, anytime authorities are conducting surveillance — even from the sky — they should have warrants.

“By and large I trust the police,” he said, but added that local authorities aren’t foolproof.  

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Courts Criminal justice State government Lance Gooden Texas Legislature