A legislative committee backed recommendations Thursday to limit how law enforcement authorities can use unmanned aerial drones for surveillance. 

The Program Review and Investigations Committee reviewed a report by its staff on regulating drone aircraft. The state does not have the authority to regulate most commercial unmanned aircraft. That responsibility falls to the Federal Aviation Authority, which is expected to release draft regulations sometime next year.

However, the state can regulate government-owned drones. The issue came up during the 2014 legislative session when the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union advocated for an unsuccessful bill that would have created a new class of crimes for privacy violations involving drones and would have required police to obtain a search warrant before using drones to collect information.

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. The bill received a public hearing but was never voted out of committee.

The PRI Committee did agree to investigate the issue and the panel approved recommendations Thursday placing limitations on how police use drones.

“Law enforcement use of drones for targeted surveillance shall be limited in duration unless there is probable cause and a warrant. This limitation is intended to reduce possible violation of an individual’s fourth amendment rights, while allowing law enforcement access to possible
beneficial uses of drones,” the report reads.

In most cases, the recommendations say police will need a warrant to use drones and that warrant will dictate how long they use them. However, the recommendations permit police to use drone surveillance for a total of 24 hours during a 30-day period if they have reasonable suspicion that someone has committed a crime, but not enough evidence to get a warrant.

The committee’s staff initially included another recommendation, which would have allowed police to use drone surveillance on someone for a total of 30 minutes in a 30-day period even if they did not have reasonable suspicion of a crime. The committee voted to strip the recommendation from their report.

“I’ve got a real problem with the notion that we would allow surveillance using drones absent a warrant. To have warrantless surveillance to me just seems wrong,” Rep. Brian Becker, D-West Hartford, said. “I would like to see that stricken, actually, from the recommendations.”

Jeanne Leblanc, communications director for Connecticut ACLU, said her organization was glad lawmakers removed the provision allowing police to use drone surveillance without suspicion of a crime. Overall, she said the report was “thoughtful” but said the group still had concerns about the provision allowing surveillance if police have reasonable suspicion.

“That’s just too low a standard,” she said. Leblanc said the ACLU was drafting a letter to lawmakers calling for a requirement that police obtain a warrant for any type of drone surveillance. “We think that’s what necessary to comport with the constitution,” she said.

The report concluded that many of the other concerns raised about criminal activity using drones have already been addressed under other criminal statutes. For instance, a person who uses a drone to stalk someone else can already be charged with stalking.

However, the committee recommended altering the state’s criminal statute on voyeurism to account for the surveillance capabilities of technology like drone aircraft.