Should law enforcement agencies be allowed to use drones to watch Nebraskans? That’s the question senators on the Judiciary committee considered in a public hearing at the Capitol Thursday.
Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher acknowledged that when a constituent first asked him "what about the drones?" he laughed. But when he checked into it, he found that in the last few years, drones have become a big business.
As operations wind down in active combat areas, Schumacher said, drone manufacturers are searching for new markets, with state and local law enforcement being a logical target. He says his bill is an attempt to act before privacy is eroded.
"It is a very important concern for the American population," he said. "And the government does not need to have its nose in everybody’s backyard. Or above everybody’s farm."
Schumacher’s bill (LB412)would prohibit Nebraska law enforcement agencies from using drones to gather evidence or other information. Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings suggested that might go too far.
Seiler referred to reports of law enforcement officers killed by former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner. "Those two police officers, or game wardens, when they stuck their head up over the truck and took two bullets in in the face… It’d have been awfully nice to have a drone fly over and find out where that sniper was before he stuck his head up over the side of the car," Seiler said.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Dorner engaged in a gun battle with California Fish and Wildlife officers, then shot two San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies before he apparently died in a burning cabin.
Amy Miller of ACLU Nebraska supported Schumacher’s proposal. She said opposition to police use of drones crosses the political spectrum, and includes the conservative Rutherford Institute. "We urge you to pass this law because without Nebraska statutes in place, it could be a decade before the Supreme Court or Congress gets around to this. And the drones are already being used in our borders," she said.
Miller said she was referring to Environmental Protection Agency overflights of Nebraska feedlots to check for runoff. The Nebraska congressional delegation, led by Sen. Mike Johanns, condemned those overflights when reports of them surfaced last June.
Some news organizations, including Fox News, reported that the flights were by drones, but the EPA said it was using single engine Cessna aircraft. Johanns said neither he nor the delegation alleged they were drones.
Although it did not testify, the Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association opposed the bill. In a letter, it said drones are useful during incidents like hazardous material spills, disaster relief, or hostage situations.
Schumacher said he was open to exceptions on his proposed ban for things like missing person searches. His bill already says it would not ban using drones to counter the high risk of a terrorist attack if the Secretary of Homeland Security says intelligence shows there is such a risk.
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.