AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard contrasting narratives Tuesday about whether the state needs to strengthen its privacy laws as unmanned aerial drones equipped with cameras become more common in the skies over Maine.

In the two years since the Legislature last debated the issue, drones have become more advanced and less expensive. While the Federal Aviation Administration is finalizing new regulations for commercial use of drones, some Maine lawmakers are pushing for action at the state level to head off what they say are privacy and constitutional concerns.

On Tuesday, lawmakers heard testimony on a bill, L.D. 482, sponsored by Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, that would require drone operators to get permission before flying over landowners’ property. A second measure, L.D. 25, would require police to get a warrant or court order before using a drone in an investigation.

“It is essential that we do our part at the state level to ensure personal privacy and constitutional protections that have stood for more than two centuries continue into the foreseeable future, irrespective of those technological advancements,”said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, sponsor of the bill to regulate police agencies’ use of drones.

The Maine Farm Bureau supported Black’s bill while the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine supported Russell’s.

But both measures encountered strong opposition from law enforcement officials and businesses that are interested in getting into the burgeoning aerial photography market.

“I am very concerned about this legislation actually killing a business as it is starting,” said Doug Bond, founder and president of Waterboro-based X-Cam Aerial Solutions, which plans to use drones to capture images for the real estate sector.

In 2013, the Legislature passed a bill, nearly identical to Russell’s, that would have required police to get a search warrant or a court order before using a drone for an investigation except in emergencies. Republican Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the measure but ordered the Department of Public Safety to adopt policies on police use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Working with the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the department crafted a model policy that, among other things, requires officers to “consult with and seek guidance from the authority having prosecutorial jurisdiction over the investigation, as a search warrant may be required.”

The model policy also requires agencies to report whenever a drone is used in an investigation and prohibits drones from being equipped with facial-recognition technology or any weapons systems. Russell praised the model but called for putting policies into statute.

The ACLU of Maine supported Russell’s bill, arguing that it “establishes clear Fourth Amendment protections in an area of surveillance activity not contemplated by our Founders” while imposing sensible warrant requirements with exemptions for emergencies.

Maine State Police Maj. Chris Grotton said he was not aware of any police agencies in Maine that are using drones. But Grotton said the policy, combined with Maine’s Constitution and privacy laws, protect citizens from police infringement.

Grotton also opposed Black’s bill, to require landowners’ permission before flying a drone over property.

“The reality is, we have hundreds of years of experience dealing with technology changes that our founding fathers could never have envisioned, and yet somehow we managed to change with the times and the courts have managed to guide us through this process,” Grotton said.

Attorney General Janet Mills submitted a letter to the Judiciary Committee, saying that Russell’s bill to regulate law enforcement agencies’ use of drones is unnecessary. Mills said the model policy, unlike Russell’s bill, addresses issues of training for drone operators, documentation and penalties for improper use.

The committee has not yet scheduled a work session for the two bills.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.