State lawmakers on Wednesday gave the first clearance to a measure designed to require police to get search warrants before they use drones to gather evidence.
Approval of HB 2269 came despite the concerns of Lyle Mann, executive director of the Peace Officers Standards and Training Board. That agency certifies who is entitled to be a law enforcement officer in Arizona.
He said the measure, in restricting police, is looking at only one side of the issue. Mann said drones can be a valuable tool for law enforcement.
"I would submit to you that the drone, as a tool, will be as much a force multiplier for the good of public safety as the hand-held radio is,'' Mann told members of the House Committee on Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs. "The things that we can do with the drone is going to be amazing if we allow ourselves to use it properly.''
He pointed out the federal government already is using unmanned aircraft to patrol the border. Mann said state and local police should not be denied the same opportunity to use drones to look for drug smugglers.
Mann said he appreciates the concerns for personal privacy. But he said lawmakers are missing the point if they focus on this specific technology.
"Right now, we have helicopters that fly around,'' Mann said. "And they see whatever they see.''
The only difference is that the person flying that aircraft is not routinely taking pictures or video. By contrast, he said, the drone will fly around and "capture that information.''
Mann told lawmakers that if their concern is privacy, they should instead focus on how that information can be used, how it can be saved and for how long, rather than restricting the drones in the first place.
Katy Proctor, lobbyist for the state Department of Public Safety, said her agency also has concerns.
Rep. Tom Forese, R-Chandler, who crafted the restriction, promised to consider their comments before the measure goes to the full House.
Other changes are possible -- but not necessarily in the direction sought by Mann and Proctor.
A more restrictive proposal crafted by Rep. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, was killed after he could not get his measure heard in the House Commerce Committee. Dial said he will seek to amend some of the provisions of his HB 2574 onto Forese's bill.
"It has exceptions big enough to drive a truck through,'' he complained, giving police the power to do warrantless searches with drones not only to prevent imminent danger of life but even serious damage to property or the destruction of evidence.
Heading into Wednesday’s two meetings, there were some technical differences, including exceptions.
The sponsors of both said earlier this week they fear this eye-in-the-sky technology is running far ahead of Arizona's existing privacy laws.
Dial said many of his constituents are familiar with the drones, either personally or through the news, because of their use in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the issue took on new urgency when the Federal Aviation Administration announced earlier this month it intends to create six sites around the country to test drones. That literally brought the issue home.
Forese said there needs to be an understanding that with the benefits of the drones come risks.
"On one hand you have economic development,'' he said before the meetings.
"We're talking about millions of dollars and thousands of jobs,'' Forese explained, with the FAA believing that unmanned aircraft could be the future of aviation in this country.
"On the other hand, you have significant threats to our privacy,'' he said.
"I take them very seriously,'' Forese continued. "We're talking about the potential to be searched without a warrant,'' he said, with police "able to see into your back yard.''
His proposal, HB 2269, would allow police to use drones without a warrant in cases where the Department of Homeland Security determines there is "credible intelligence'' of a high risk of a terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization. And the aircraft could be launched in cases where "swift action is needed'' to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage of property, forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or prevent the destruction of evidence.
Forese said he is keenly aware of the bid by the state to become a drone test site, saying he is part of the "Red Team'' at the Arizona Commerce Authority which tries to get all sorts of training and testing programs located here. And Forese said drones could prove useful in securing the border.
But he said legislators need to take a closer look at other uses that could intrude on individual privacy.
"Technology always brings these kinds of concerns with it,'' Forese said.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said his worries go beyond misuse by police.
"I actually feel that I have a greater threat from somebody running down to Fry's Electronics and buying a $300 video helicopter and flying around my house ... than having Big Brother peeping overhead,'' he said. "But I think both need to be addressed.''
At the moment, though, HB 2269 addresses only limiting law enforcement use of the drones.
That, however, is not the case with Dial's proposal. Aside from restrictions on police, HB 2574 would make it illegal for any individual to use a drone "to monitor other persons inside their homes or places of worship or within the closed confines of their property.''
House Majority Leader David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said earlier in the week that Arizona needs to convince the federal government of the state's suitability for drone testing. He said the state has plenty of open airspace in Southern Arizona, allowing the aircraft to be operated from Fort Huachuca all the way to Yuma.
But Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, warned colleagues against letting their desire for economic development overwhelm the constitutional rights of Arizonans.
"I know we're desperate for jobs,'' she said. "But I would caution (using) that as our underlying motivation for doing something that in the future would compromise our civil liberties for the sake of money.''
Gowan, however, said legislators need to understand that drones, by themselves, do not mean an automatic intrusion into privacy. He noted there already are lots of aircraft in the skies.
"We could do that right now if we wanted to take pictures of back yards,'' he said.
Dial conceded the point.
"I think the difference is the camera,'' he said, indiscriminately taking pictures or video.
Forese said it is up to legislators to be thinking about the impacts of these drones before they're already flying the skies of Arizona.
"Part of our job is to look into these things very, very carefully,'' he said. "I think we need to make sure we strike the right balance.''
The FAA action follows a year-old Congressional mandate to find sites to test drones for military and civilian use. The ultimate goal is to allow drones into U.S. airspace currently limited to manned aircraft by 2015.