- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 23, 2013

RICHMOND — A diverse coalition of organizations and lawmakers said Tuesday that the use of drones by police and government agencies must be regulated to protect Virginians’ privacy rights.

“We are concerned about the potential for abuse,” said Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah Republican and sponsor of legislation to regulate use of small, unmanned aerial vehicles that can be equipped with cameras to conduct surveillance.

Mr. Gilbert, one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly, worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to draft the legislation. Also supporting the bill are the Virginia Tea Party Federation and several agriculture groups, which worry about environmental regulators surreptitiously monitoring activity on their property.

“We don’t think audio or video surveillance should happen on private land,” said Trey Davis of the Virginia Farm Bureau.

Mr. Gilbert said no government or police agencies in Virginia are using drones yet, but the day is coming as the cost of the technology declines. He and Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, urged the General Assembly to address the issue proactively.

“The ACLU asks the legislature to set a policy for how much privacy you’re going to continue to have as the technology evolves,” Ms. Gastanaga said at a news conference with Mr. Gilbert and supporters of the bill.

Mr. Gilbert’s proposal would require approval of the General Assembly or a local government body before any agency could buy drones. It would require police to obtain a warrant before deploying drones and regulate the dissemination of information and retention of images gathered by the aircraft. The bill carves out exemptions for emergencies, such as searching for a missing person.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, is sponsoring similar legislation, and Delegate Benjamin L. Cline, Rockbridge Republican, has submitted a bill imposing a one-year moratorium on the deployment of drones as an alternative if the proposed regulations do not pass.

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the bills, Executive Director Dana G. Schrad said in an interview.

“The concern we all have is that we don’t want to be rushed into legislation we may not be happy with later — legislation that may not fully address the best practices in law enforcement when it comes to surveillance,” Ms. Schrad said.

She said satellites already make aerial surveillance possible, and “cameras are part of daily life in this day and age.” She added that while the police chiefs recognize the difference between monitoring people in public and in private, “I just don’t know that this bill is ready for prime time.”

Virginia is not alone in considering regulating drones. A Florida legislative panel last week advanced a bill prohibiting police and other government agencies from using drones to spy on residents, and legislation is being proposed in a few other states.

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