- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2014

Virginia’s attorney general affirmed that the use of drones by law enforcement to gather evidence or in conjunction with a search warrant is not allowed under the state’s current drone ban.

Law enforcement officials in rural Wise County this summer sought clarification of the legal uses of drones under the moratorium, which lawmakers adopted in 2013 to give themselves more time to consider the legal issues surrounding the use of unmanned aircraft in Virginia skies.

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring wrote in an advisory opinion dated Thursday that the ban, which is set to expire in July, “prohibits the use of even a single remotely controlled aerial vehicle by state or local law enforcement for the purpose of gathering evidence pursuant to a search warrant.”

Virginia lawmakers are expected to come back to the drawing board in next year’s legislative session to debate drone use. But for now the standing moratorium bans government agencies from flying drones except in a handful of circumstances: in searches for missing children or seniors, for research purposes by universities and by the Virginia National Guard.

Law enforcement recently used drones to aid in the search for missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.

In a July 10 letter requesting an opinion from Mr. Herring, Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ron Elkins posed the question of whether the Wise County sheriff’s office could use their two small, remote-controlled “quad copters” for other purposes. With a bit of wordsmithing, he noted that the moratorium approved by the Virginia General Assembly forbids the use of “an unmanned aircraft system.”

He argued that use of a single drone “according to the parameters of a specific search warrant” would not count as the use of a system as banned by lawmakers. Rather, he reasoned that the use of a squadron of drones used to regularly catch motorists who speed or run red lights would be more akin to a “system.”

In his opinion, Mr. Herring disagreed, writing that “the term ‘unmanned aircraft system,’ in conformity with its accepted industry definition, encompasses a single unmanned aerial vehicle that has corresponding equipment and controls permitting its remote use by a human operator.”

Use of drones for “specified humanitarian purposes” such as search and rescue missions remains a legal use under the moratorium, Mr. Herring wrote.

A spokesman for Mr. Herring said his office had no additional comment, and would let the opinion speak for itself.

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