General Assembly approves drone moratorium

state-capitol2The ACLU of Virginia joined bill patrons Del. Ben Cline (R-Amherst), Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock) and State Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) in calling on the governor to sign without amendment the drone moratorium legislation sent to his desk this week by overwhelming bi-partisan votes in both houses.

The bills passed by the House and Senate call for a two year moratorium on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by law enforcement and regulatory agencies in the Commonwealth and include reasonable exceptions for the use of drones in emergency situations and by the National Guard in fulfilling its federal mission.

Cline, who introduced the legislation calling for a moratorium (HB 2012), said, “The broad coalition that supported this legislation and the overwhelming bi-partisan vote in both houses of the Virginia legislature confirm that there is general agreement that Virginia needs to go slow in adopting this new technology for use in law enforcement.” “We need to have policies and procedures in place that define the public’s role in deciding how this technology should be used and provide for reasonable warrant requirements needed to protect our privacy before we put drones in the sky over our homes, businesses, and farms,” Cline added.

Gilbert, the chief patron of a bill that would have established a regulatory framework governing the use of drones (HB 1616), said, “The two year moratorium that the legislature has now approved gives us the time we need to develop common-sense regulations governing the use of drones that can become a model for the country.” He added, “We urge the Governor to sign the moratorium bill into law without amendments and without delay.”

McEachin, who offered legislation on the Senate side identical to Gilbert’s bill (SB 1331) said, “I am pleased the General Assembly adopted legislation ensuring that we have the time needed to develop sensible and reasonable policies governing the use of drones.  I hope that representatives of drone manufacturers, law enforcement and regulatory agencies, citizens and businesses concerned about the unregulated use of drones will come together during the moratorium and agree on an approach that properly balances the benefit of such technology with the privacy rights of Virginians.”

“Without new laws, drone technology can be purchased for use by police without any public input and used in a manner that will violate the fundamental right to be free from unreasonable searches,” added Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the Executive Director of the ACLU. “Virginia is right to get ahead of the use of this technology and to take steps to prevent the Commonwealth from becoming a surveillance state in which every individual’s actions are tracked, recorded and stored for future use.”

In addition to the ACLU of Virginia, other organizations in support of legislation regulating the use of drones in the state include the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, the Virginia Campaign for Liberty, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, the Virginia Farm Bureau, and the Virginia Poultry Federation.

The ACLU of Virginia and Gilbert announced in July that we were working together on legislation to regulate the use of unmanned aerial drones in the Commonwealth. As introduced, HB 1616 and the companion bill introduced by McEachin, SB 1331, took a regulatory approach that addressed privacy concerns and the need for public oversight of any use of drones and included usage restrictions, image retention restrictions, public notice requirements, and policies regarding auditing and effectiveness tracking. Cline introduced HB 2012, which initially proposed a one year moratorium on the use of drones without exceptions.

As the legislative process moved forward, it became apparent that a moratorium permitting careful consideration of all of the privacy and other interests at stake was a reasonable legislative policy choice at this time. HB 1616 was incorporated into HB 2012 and SB 1331 was amended to mirror in many respects the House moratorium. Ultimately, both houses adopted versions of the moratorium legislation that had the following features: 1) a two year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement and regulatory agencies; 2) a prohibition on the use of weaponized drones; 3) an exception to the moratorium that allows the use of unweaponized drones in search and rescue, and where Amber Alerts (children), Senior Alerts (older adults) or Blue Alerts (police) are activated; and 4) an exception to the moratorium that allows the National Guard to use drones as needed to maintain readiness for its federal mission but not for any law enforcement activity.


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