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Top Senate Democrat warns against police use of drones

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The senior Democrat in the Senate on Wednesday called for scrapping mandatory minimum sentences at both the federal and state levels and said he wants Congress to take a critical look at the way police agencies in the United States are using drones.

"This fast-emerging technology is cheap, but I think just because it's available doesn't mean it helps. I think there could be a significant threat to the privacy and civil liberties," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is Judiciary Committee chairman and president pro tempore of the Senate.

Mr. Leahy laid out his agenda for the 113th Congress in a speech at Georgetown Law Center, where he said immigration will dominate his committee at the beginning of this year, and said he will push for a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act.

But it was his calls for scrapping mandatory minimum sentences and his vow to take a closer look at drones that will produce the most heat.

He diverted from his prepared remarks to strongly condemn mandatory minimums at all levels, calling them "a great mistake" that hurts youths and minorities.

"I think at the federal level and at the state level, get rid of these mandatory minimum sentences. Let judges act as judges and make up their own mind what should be done," he said. "The idea that we protect society by one size fits all, or the idea that we can do this kind of symbolism to make us safer — it just does not work in the real world."

On drones, Mr. Leahy sounded a skeptical note about police agencies in the U.S., which increasingly are turning to the technology.

"We make a tragic mistake if we think giving up more and more of our privacy will make us safer," he said.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Leahy has the power to call hearings to examine both sentencing and drones and to write legislation controlling them — though he didn't say in his remarks whether he has anything specifically in mind.

Mr. Leahy had the chance to become chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which is usually considered the most powerful panel in the Senate, but he turned that down to remain at the head of the Judiciary Committee.

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