MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin cannot use drones unless they have a search warrant or a legitimate reason, according to a new bill announced Thursday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
The proposal, authored by Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using unmanned aircraft equipped with video or audio recording devices as part of criminal investigations. Evidence will not be allowed if obtained illegally.
Exceptions would apply in certain situations, such as during manhunts or rescue operations.
"We don't want to impede investigations," said Rep. Fred Kessler, a Milwaukee Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill. "But we do believe people need to have a basis before they can go into others' privacy."
Kessler, a former judge and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said he is most concerned that privacy has become highly vulnerable as new technology enables more people to purchase sophisticated devices at lower prices.
Law enforcement and other public agencies have to be authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration in order to use drones in civil airspace. FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said the agency has exclusive authority to set nationwide airspace safety standards, meaning it pre-empts any state or municipal government from enacting similar statues.
August's proposal would not conflict with federal regulations, since it only asks drone uses to be warranted by a judge.
Drones vary in size and shape. They also serve diverse purposes ranging from military strikes to civilian recreations.
The Wisconsin Army National Guard has 19 unmanned aerial vehicles, mostly used for road scouting and other training purposes. Capt. Joy Staab said the unit follows strict rules from both the FAA and the Defense Department.
Private businesses and individuals are OK to use drones for research and development, flight demonstrations and crew training if granted by the FAA.
The proposal would prohibit anyone from flying drones over or into the properties of others to record video or audio without permission. Violators can be fined up to $10,000, and could have to serve nine months in jail.
Drones could be used in public areas where the expectation of privacy is low. Current law does not provide such guidelines.
Drones using a weapon are also banned under the proposal.
A number of states and municipalities have passed or are considering similar limits on drones. Like Wisconsin, their laws do not apply to assignments conducted by federal agencies such as the FBI.
Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said unregulated use of drones could create a chilling effect on people's use of public spaces, as Wisconsin law enforcement already has highly advanced technology such as GPS tracking devices, automated license plate readers, and devices for facial or behavioral recognition.
"Just because we can do something with technology doesn't mean we should violate the American Constitution," Ahmuty said. "The bottom line is how the technology is used."