A new law regulating the use of drone has earned the governor’s signature. In recent days, the Rice County Sheriff’s Office twice used a drone to apprehend suspects in hard to reach areas. (Metro Creative Images)

With Minnesota’s law enforcement agencies increasingly using drones to conduct their work, the state legislature has passed a first of its kind bill to put restrictions on their use.

After winning near-unanimous approval from the legislature, the measure was part of a data practices omnibus bill signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz May 16. It requires law enforcement agencies to apply for a warrant prior to using a drone, unless an exception applies.

The list of exceptions is long and broad. They include usage during, or in the aftermath of a public emergency, for officer training or public relations purposes, or to collect information over a public area if a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity exists. Those and other exemptions now enshrined in the law were the product of painstaking negotiations between civil liberties groups like the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union and law enforcement groups like the Minnesota Sheriffs Association.

As with other provisions of the omnibus bill, previous versions of the measure had ultimately been shelved due to law enforcement concerns. Many of those groups expressed concerns that “regulatory overreach” could leave officers hesitant to use drones at all.

Minnesota Sheriffs Association President Bill Hutton said that the renegotiated bill is a major improvement over the initial legislation. He said that he believed the original bill showed a lack of understanding as to how law enforcement currently uses drones.

“A vast majority of drone use is used to look for lost individuals, or to assist the city or the county in other ways,” he said. “There’s a misconception that drone use is mostly used for surveillance, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Ben Feist, chief programs officer for the ACLU of Minnesota, criticized several provisions of the bill introduced at the behest of law enforcement, saying they covered theoretical scenarios. However, he says the disclosure sections of the bill should reduce that loopholes could be stretched in alarming manner.

“While it’s not perfect and doesn’t protect as much as we wanted, we can now see how drones are deployed and determine if there are problems,” he said.

The bill was authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, and his Senate colleague Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. Lesch said that it remains to be seen how effective the re-negotiated legislation will be, but that it will provide crucial safeguards.

While Minnesotans might imagine that their privacy rights are safeguarded under the Fourth Amendment, it offers sparse protection. The Amendment applies to criminal cases, not to civil cases, and only if an individual has been charged with a crime. In practice, this meant that Minnesotans had virtually no protection absent a very unique set of circumstances. While some law enforcement agencies have implemented their own regulatory and reporting systems, they’re inconsistent across the state.

Last year, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie told a House-Senate panel on data practices that the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department has put in place tight guidelines for drone use. Leslie said that all drone use is examined on a quarterly basis by the county’s Sheriff-Citizen Advisory Council.

Similarly, Rice County’s Sheriffs Department only began using its recently acquired drones after developing a clear drone use policy and training its officers on proper use. The department used its drones last week to locate a suspect on a stolen ATV and on Tuesday to locate a suspect in an alleged assault.

Without that information, it’s unclear exactly how often law enforcement use drones or for what purposes. Now, law enforcement agencies will be required to document each use of drone, create a written policy governing its use and solicit public feedback on drone usage.

Another provision of the law would require law enforcement to dispose of data collected by drones on individuals other than the intended target within seven days, unless the data collected provides evidence of criminal activity.

Lesch said that in some respects, he believes that the exemptions in the bill are too broad. He pointed to an exemption that would allow police to fly drones over the Bemidji Ice Fishing Festival, arguing it was unnecessary.

“I objected to that, because they have no probable cause,” he said. “But that was one of the compromises needed to get the bill done.”

Overall, Lesch said he was pleased with the final product and believes it will provide substantial protections. He said that while he doesn’t believe that law enforcement will intentionally abuse privacy rights, he believes it’s important to have strong safeguards.

“What we had was the Wild West,” he said. “With no guidelines in place, standards can get substantially watered down.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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