Drone use

A Hennepin County Sheriff’s deputy flies a drone from Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis to photograph a mudslide on the east bank of the Mississippi River on July 17. (Matt Sepic/MPR News file)

At all levels, law enforcement agencies of all types are increasingly using drones to conduct their work. Outside of established protections established in the Bill of Rights and freedom of information laws like Minnesota’s Data Privacy Act, few restrictions currently exist on the use of drones. However, the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of Minnesota legislators are trying to update laws to address privacy concerns.

A new drone bill, supported by the ACLU, would restrict the ability of law enforcement to use drones for non-emergency situations. In addition, it would require law enforcement to dispose of data collected on individuals other than the intended target, unless the data collected provides evidence of criminal activity. In that event it would still be subject to the Open Field Doctrine, which enables law enforcement to arrest people for criminal acts they are observed committing on private property.

Under current law, drones can be used to search for both criminal suspects and missing persons. If the footage in question is not part of, or does not become subject to, a criminal investigation, it would generally be considered public information under Minnesota’s public records law, the Data Practices Act.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Finance Policy Committee. Along with Sens. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, Limmer worked to advance a version of the bill this spring but temporarily shelved the measure in response to concerns from law enforcement agencies. Limmer says he is particularly concerned that law enforcement agencies often indefinitely hold data not pertinent to a criminal investigation, including drone images.

“We don’t believe that data needs to be held and collected into perpetuity,” said Limmer.

Earlier this week, Northfield Area Fire and Rescue responded to an emergency in a rural area outside Dundas. Two individuals’ inner tubes deflated while they floated down the river and they were left stranded. Rescue personnel used a drone, privately owned by one of the department’s members, to help locate the individuals in need and provide help more quickly.

Northfield Fire Chief Gerry Franek said that Fire and Rescue has used the drone before, but that this was the first time they’ve used it in an emergency situation. Previously, they’ve used it to track down criminal suspects and for training purposes. He says Fire and Rescue hasn’t devised any formal in-house rules on drone usage, just that they use it “when appropriate.”

By contrast, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie told a House-Senate panel on data practices last month 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.

Minnesota Newspaper Association Attorney Mark Anfinson says he and others are concerned that the bill prohibits law enforcement agencies from using a drone in non-emergency situations without a warrant. Anfinson worries that since law enforcement receives so many calls about emergency or near-emergency situations, law enforcement officials would struggle to discern what situations would qualify as a true emergency under the law. Faced with such uncertainty, law enforcement officials could err on the side of caution out of fear of being accused of misconduct — preventing them from deploying drones in appropriate situations.

“It would impose a whole new set of extremely complicated and detailed rules … on top of the complicated and detailed rules they already have to follow when using technology,” Anfinson said.

Bill proponents say they’ve worked closely with law enforcement agencies to address their concerns. They argue that new restrictions on drone usage and related data collection are necessary to protect citizens’ privacy.

“Drones are new and powerful tools,” said Julia Decker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “In working with law enforcement to craft exceptions in this bill, we’ve acknowledged the real-world benefits of drone usage. However, drones are also unique in the potential for secret surveillance.”

Limmer and the committee have continued working with law enforcement agencies to help address their concerns. He says he’s optimistic that the committee will be able to come to an agreement and produce a thoughtful, balanced drone regulation bill for the full Legislature’s consideration.

“Law enforcement is using all sorts of surveillance gadgets, but there’s been very little legislation around proper use of them,” Limmer noted. “The challenge is to find balance between public good and privacy concerns.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. Minnesota Public Radio’s Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.

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