Hugh McQuaid Photo
Rep. James Albis (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Lawmakers want to create new penalties for crimes committed with unmanned aircraft and establish rules for how police use drones in investigations as part of a far-reaching bill governing drones in Connecticut.

The Judiciary Committee heard public testimony on the bill Monday at the Legislative Office Building. State lawmakers are looking to weigh in on the issue this year as the Federal Aviation Administration is working on establishing regulations for drones flying above 400 feet. Those new regulations could see the small, relatively inexpensive aircraft become much more common.

“With this kind of technology, there’s certainly propensity to do a lot of amazing things but at the same time there’s concerns about privacy. That’s what we’re trying to address,” Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, said.

The bill
would make “use of an unmanned aircraft” a crime. A conviction under the new statute could be as severe as a Class B felony if the drone was weaponized. Lesser degrees of the crime involve stalking, voyeurism, and harassment and would result in a Class C felony.

The legislation also sets rules for how police can use drones as tools for investigations. At its core, the bill requires law enforcement officials to get a warrant before operating a drone to collect information.

Lawmakers heard mixed testimony on the new legislation during Monday’s hearing. The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association opposed the bill and urged lawmakers to form a task force to take a closer look at the issue before passing law.

“The technology is so new, I’m not sure we’re taking everything into consideration, even use by citizens. I also believe there are enough statutes out there today to address some of the concerns this bill raises,” Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore said.

Salvatore said he did not know of any law enforcement agencies in Connecticut currently using unmanned aircraft, but said it is likely that some will in the near future because they are inexpensive.

“Due to the cost, you’re probably going to see more drones used. So studying this and looking at it now is certainly appropriate,” he said. “… I’m not necessarily opposed to everything in [the bill], I have a lot of concerns on behalf of law enforcement. If we could just slow down and put a good piece of legislation together, I’d be all in favor of that.”

However, the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union supports the legislation and does not want to see the legislature wait another year to put something in place to define how police can use the aircraft.

“Something should get on the books now,” David McGuire, an ACLU staff attorney, told lawmakers. “It is much more difficult to regulate a technology in a meaningful and sensible way once its out of the bottle.”

McGuire said it is appropriate that police should be required to obtain a warrant before using a drone to gather evidence. He said the enactment of such standards will help to shield criminal cases involving drones from legal challenges.

“Truthfully, it’s in the benefit of law enforcement and prosecutors to have a clear standard. The first time a drone is used to get evidence of wrongdoing without a warrant there’s going to be a criminal defense attorney making an objection that this is inadmissible because it was obtained illegally,” he said.

While Salvatore likened the use of drones to how police already use manned aircraft like helicopters, McGuire said they should be treated differently because they are small, maneuverable and capable of being equipped with surveillance technology.

But Peter Sachs, a lawyer and author of the Drone Law Journal, said the legislation raises other problems. He said it is currently written far too broadly and would create a host of problems for law enforcement and the general public.

“The entire bill is a mess. It’s a complete mess,” Sachs said.

For instance, he said if a private citizen were using a drone and observed a body or some other sort of criminal activity, the bill would make it illegal for police to receive that information because it was collected through the use of a drone.

Sachs said the bill was well intentioned but would likely be unenforceable. He said there is a lot of anxiety about drones at the moment.

“People fear what they don’t understand and every time a drone story comes out in the paper or on TV, the very first thing you see is a picture of a big, scary Predator drone and not all drones are that. Some are nothing more than remote control model airplanes that have been around for decades,” he said.