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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published January 28 2013

Bill would set rules for law enforcement drone use

BISMARCK – University researchers and law enforcement officials are opposing a Bismarck lawmaker’s bill that would require a warrant to use unmanned planes.

Republican Rep. Rick Becker told the House Judiciary Committee on Monday that he introduced the bill because of constituent concerns about privacy rights. He said the issue stems from the use of a drone in the arrest of a Lakota farmer during a 16-hour standoff, an event that spurred national debate over the use of unmanned planes for surveillance.

The freshman lawmaker’s bill would allow law enforcement to use drones if a warrant is obtained during the investigation of a felony crime, or to monitor “an environmental or weather-related catastrophe.” Drones could not be armed with weapons or used to investigate misdemeanor crimes or traffic infractions.

The committee took no action on the measure on Monday.

Becker said his bill was modeled after legislation that’s being considered by the federal government and several other states. He emphasized the measure is not intended to hinder law enforcement or hurt drone research at the University of North Dakota, considered one of the leading schools in developing unmanned aircraft.

“It is not anti-law enforcement. ... It allows for an abundance of situations when drones can be used,” said Becker, a Bismarck plastic surgeon and UND graduate. “It is not intended to deter research going on at UND.”

Law enforcement and university officials are not convinced.

“It does restrict law enforcement,” said Jerry Kemmet, spokesman for the North Dakota Peace Officers Association and the former director of the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

“I don’t think we have to be afraid of it,” Kemmet said of the use of drones by law enforcement. “We have to use it the right way.”

North Dakota courts held up law enforcement’s use of a drone to help a SWAT team apprehend Rodney Brossart in June 2011. The standoff began when Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went onto Brossart’s land with a search warrant to look for six missing cows. Janke has said he left after he was confronted by three men brandishing rifles.

Authorities used images from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Predator drone to find the location of three Brossart brothers, including Rodney, who lived on the farm, and determine that they were unarmed. Police then arrested the trio.

Janke told the House Judiciary Committee on Monday that limiting the use of drones “takes away from law enforcement to do our job to serve and protect.”

The sheriff said a drone was used only one other time in his county to find an armed suicidal man who was hiding in a weeded area. Janke said authorities were able to find and arrest the man.

“(Drones) are used more for safety issues that for detecting crimes,” Janke said.

UND Vice President for Research Phyllis Johnson also opposes the bill, saying it could have a negative impact on the school’s drone research and it may prevent the state from being selected as one of six national test sites.

“We are concerned that passage of a privacy bill could have a chilling effect on how the Federal Aviation Administration views UND and the state of North Dakota with respect to research and testing of (drones),” she said.

Law enforcement officials and Johnson called for more study on the measure.

“We believe that the overall interests of the state, as well as of UND, will be best served if this bill is not passed now,” Johnson said.