Hugh McQuaid Photo
PRI Committee chairs Sen. John Kissel and Rep. Mary Mushinsky (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Legislation to regulate drones in Connecticut never got off the ground this year, but the Program Review and Investigations Committee voted Thursday to devote one of its researchers to study the issue.

The committee devotes limited resources to researching a handful of topics each year to inform possible legislative action. Lawmakers picked unmanned aircraft as a topic for research ahead of a number of competing issues.

Sen. John Kissel, the bipartisan committee’s Republican co-chairman, urged his colleagues to dedicate resources to studying drones. He explained some of the concerns that were raised at a public hearing on the issue this year.

“It’s important to address the drones issue,” Kissel said. “There are huge ramifications regarding that and there’s a clock ticking as far as once those things are in operation, it’s very difficult to rein them back in.”

The commitment from the investigation panel is considered a step in the right direction for proponents of legislation on drones, which was basically abandoned after a public hearing on the matter back in February.

“I think its really complex issue. I can’t say I was surprised it didn’t pass this year,” Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, said. “We really need to take a more thorough look at the issues related to drones.”

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.

Early in this year’s legislative session the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union advocated for a bill proposed by Albis and Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. The legislation would have created a new class of crimes for privacy violations involving drones and would have required police to obtain a warrant before using drones to collect information.

David McGuire, an ACLU staff attorney, stressed that the warrant requirement should be a cornerstone of regulating drones.

However, 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 a law. Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore said current statutes were adequate to cover the criminal privacy concerns raised by lawmakers.

However, Salvatore told the Judiciary Committee that it was appropriate to study drone regulation as law enforcement agencies would likely explore using drones soon because they are relatively inexpensive.

The Judiciary Committee declined to act on the legislation. But Kissel said Thursday that law enforcement use of drones was one of the biggest concerns raised during the bill’s public hearing and it’s an aspect of the issue he expected the Program Review and Investigations Committee staff to look into this year.

“A huge issue is law enforcement utilization [of drones] and its infringement upon your civil rights and your privacy rights. What are the boundaries?” he said. “. . . [The study] has the potentiality to be fairly large-scale, touching a lot of different issues, looking at what other states and the federal government is doing.”

In a phone interview, McGuire said he was encouraged by the committee’s decision to consider the issue, which could give a bill on unmanned aircraft a better chance at passing during the next legislative session.

“I think legislators will look to that nonpartisan report and I feel confident that report will find that there’s a need for regulation of these drones in Connecticut,” he said. “. . . There’s no doubt that law enforcement in Connecticut wants this tool and there’s certainly a place for it, but it’s important that existing privacy rights not be compromised.”