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North Dakota Senate passes bill limiting UAS use by law enforcement

The North Dakota Senate passed legislation Thursday to place limits on law enforcement's use of unmanned aerial systems for surveillance despite concerns that it would impede the state’s pending UAS industry.

Under House Bill 1328, information obtained from UAS couldn’t be used to get a search warrant. Information also would not be admissible in a “prosecution or proceeding within the state” unless law enforcement obtained a search warrant, with several exceptions.

The bill doesn't prohibit use of UAS for surveillance during patrol of national borders, instances of imminent danger to life or bodily harm, an environmental catastrophe or for research.

Proponents of the bill said that it is much more narrowly focused than a bill that came up two years ago, and that it helps protect individual liberties.

Grand Forks area legislators Mac Schneider, a Democrat, and Republicans Lonnie Laffen, Ray Holmberg and Tom Campbell all voted against the bill. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, joined 28 other senators giving it a green light.

The House approved the legislation in February.

Grand Forks leaders hope the area is on the cusp of a boom in UAS testing and development. The Federal Aviation Administration designated the area as one of six national test sites for researching integration into the national airspace in 2013, and the Grand Forks Air Force Base will be home to a UAS tech park in the near future.  

Narrow focus

The bill as introduced faced opposition from Grand Forks law enforcement officials, who said it would make the aircraft less useful at a time when police need more tools to fight increased crime. Sen. Jonathan Casper, R-Fargo, said law enforcement and UND officials were involved in drafting amendments to the bill.

Still, Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said Thursday he believed the bill should have been scrapped and lawmakers should have started new.

“I guess we’ll just have to live with it,” he said.

Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmount, said the legislation was premature because there weren’t instances of the technology being misused.

“I think that UAV industry is growing in this state, and to saddle it with any kind of regulation like this is a setback for that industry,” he said.

But Casper said the bill is focused strictly on law enforcement’s use of unmanned craft and is not meant to suggest North Dakota isn’t open to UAS development.

“We’re not putting up a sign saying we’re not welcoming drones to this state … I think that we’ve proven through legislation here, the actions of the state, that we’re incredibly open to those folks coming in and developing their technology,” Casper said. “We’re simply saying police in their investigations … can’t establish probable cause solely by using a drone for the investigation.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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