- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Police in Wyoming would have to get warrants to use drones to gather evidence in criminal cases under a bill that a legislative committee endorsed Thursday.

The Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee voted to send a bill to place restrictions on police use of drones to the full Legislature when it meets early next year. The committee defeated a proposed amendment to prohibit weapons on drones.

Representatives from the Wyoming ACLU and the Wyoming Liberty Group spoke in favor of requiring police to get warrants for drone surveillance, saying law enforcement use of drones is becoming more common.

“We very firmly believe that law enforcement should have warrants in this situation as required for a search,” said Linda Burt, executive director of the Wyoming ACLU.

Burt said the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t dealt with the issue of drones yet. Allowing police unfettered use of evolving drone technology isn’t the same as allowing officers to act on what they can see merely driving by a person’s house or flying over in a plane, she said.

“These can go into your house, on occasions, without your knowledge,” Burt said of drones.

Steve Klein, a lawyer with the Liberty Group - a libertarian organization that has sued the state successfully in recent months over restrictions on campaign financing - urged the committee to consider expanding the bill to include language prohibiting law enforcement from “weaponizing” drones for use against civilians.

The U.S. military makes wide use of drones overseas for surveillance and for firing missiles.

Klein said his organization recognizes that there are legitimate government uses for drones on the domestic front, including tracking forest fires and monitoring wildlife.

However, Klein warned that drone technology is evolving fast and said it can pose a risk to privacy. “Soon enough, I think Robocop will be knocking on our door,” he said.

Tony Rose of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police said many local governments in the state are facing tight budgets. He said currently only a handful of counties and municipalities have drones for police or fire protection.

“With the budgets, the way they’re coming about, I doubt there are very many counties or communities in the state that are going to be able to afford drones,” Rose said.

The committee voted down an amendment proposed by Rep. Kendell Kroeker, R-Evansville, to prohibit the use of weapons on drones.

Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said he questioned why lawmakers would want to restrict law enforcement’s ability to respond in a situation in which a drone might offer police the only way to get a clear shot at a hostage-taker.

Burns also questioned whether there was any prohibition on members of the general public owning weaponized drones.

The committee also defeated an amendment proposed by Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, that would have allowed police use of drones without a warrant provided they flew above public streets and were used by law enforcement for routine patrol purposes.

Kinskey, a former mayor of Sheridan, said he’s concerned that sometimes police a stretched thin.

Kroeker spoke against the amendment, saying it would in effect kill the entire purpose of the bill.

The federal government also has been wrestling with the issue of how to regulate drones. The National Park Service has cited several people for using drones in Yellowstone National Park this summer.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis this summer directed superintendents to write rules prohibiting drones from launching, landing or operating in the service’s 401 parks.

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