- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Texas man sued Friday to stop a new state law giving drones “unfettered” rights to snap photos or video along the southwest border, saying it appears to be a racially tinged effort to target Mexicans for intrusive scrutiny.

Manuel R. Flores, who lives in Laredo, said either Texans should be allowed to film anywhere or nowhere — but treating those who live along the border differently is a violation of his constitutional rights.

Texas law generally prohibits using drones to snap unauthorized photos of people or things on private property, but Gov. Greg Abbott signed several new drone bills into law last year laying out exceptions such as surveyors, academics, utility workers and realtors, who are allowed to photograph as long as no individuals are shown.

But Mr. Flores and his lawyer, Carlos Soltero, say they can find no good reason why the legislature would have carved out a 25-mile zone along the border and allowed anyone to photograph people and property.

“Inexplicably, the Texas Legislature and Governor Abbott has chosen to make this artificial strip of lands 25 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border a playground for drone enthusiasts who would otherwise be precluded from filming people in their homes, washing their cars, gardening in their yard, or simply walking on their private property,” the lawsuit says.

Mr. Soltero said there’s little legislative history to help guess at what was in lawmakers’ minds, but he said it’s striking that the population inside the 25-mile zone is predominantly of Mexican ancestry.

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“It appears that the legislature has determined that the privacy of Texas residents of Mexican descent and national origin as well as others who live or have property as far away as 25 miles from the border as being less important than those of other Texans or less worthy of protection from drone-taken images,” the lawsuit charges.

The challenge was filed in state court.

Mr. Abbott’s office referred questions to the attorney general’s office, which said Friday it hadn’t been served with the lawsuit yet so it couldn’t comment.

The federal government is still trying to work its way through national drone policy, but many states, including Texas, have been proactive in grappling with the issue.

Some states have erred on the side of privacy, insisting that police can’t use evidence obtained from drone flights unless they first obtained a warrant for the operations. Others have gone further, attempting to limit drones when flown by private citizens.

The patchwork, however, has produced its own backlash, with some members of Congress pushing for a national uniform standard. That’s part of the debate on updating authority for the Federal Aviation Administration. The Senate is expected to vote on the FAA bill this week.

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In Texas, Mr. Soltero said it’s up to the legislature as a public policy measure to decide whether the border policy should be extended across the state, or whether the ban on photographing that applies elsewhere should cover the border region, too. What’s unacceptable, he said, is having different rules.

“Why is my client’s privacy less valuable than the privacy of the same type of individual in Austin or Amarillo or Lubbock?” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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