Drones are some of the most universally opposed tools available to law enforcement, and for good reason. These “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” could easily be used in a variety of ways which are completely contradictory to Americans’ Constitutional Rights, such as the right to due process, or freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.
Routine aerial surveillance is the strongest concern. Drones would allow the tracking and recording of every move and action made in the US. This information could be punished directly, or possibly be used as part of unrelated legal arguments. The Constitution explicitly requires warrants for government investigation of people’s personal lives, but routine aerial surveillance would completely eliminate this Constitutional privacy.
The notion of armed drones able to kill or incapacitate citizens is possibly even more disturbing. Such weapons have already been used for the targeted killing of American citizens overseas, and while that could be perceived as having legal precedent, bringing armed drones to American soil is a chilling thought. Numerous military-style vehicles are already being introduced to police departments across the country, and opposing Free State Project, and other groups has been cited as the reason for such a need. Peaceful groups like the Free State Project have even been called “domestic terrorists” in order to acquire grants to purchase para-military armored vehicles.
US commercial airspace will be opened to drones in less than two years, and in preparation for such an event, with an eye to the possible abuses of the devices, many states have taken it upon themselves to regulate the use of unmanned aircraft. Virginia was the first state to enact such a law on April 3, 2013, and it was quickly followed by ten other states, including Idaho, Florida and Tennessee. In all, 43 states have introduced a total of 115 bills attempting to regulate drones.
Many of these laws – such as in Virginia, Idaho, Florida and Tennessee – require law enforcement to obtain a warrant in order to use drones. Most states make exceptions for emergency situations, such as Amber alerts, to prevent loss of life, or for use by the National Guard. While Idaho doesn’t provide special rules for such situations, Texas makes considerably more exceptions, allowing for drone use in oil pipeline safety and academic research.
Montana’s requirement for a search warrant is slightly more focused, dictating when information obtained via drone can be admitted as evidence in any prosecution or court proceeding. Alaska created a task force to submit a final report in July 2014, and Hawaii has created degree programs to train people in the use of aircraft. Fourteen states and multiple cities have adopted a variety of resolutions on the use of drones.
Meanwhile, 24 states have applied to be drone testing sites, and 81 government entities have applied for permission to fly drones in US airspace. These include universities, police departments, community colleges, research institutes, military organizations, and various state and federal government departments.
The National Center for Policy Analysis expects up to 30,000 drones to be flying over US soil by 2020, but their use in America has already begun. In August 2011, a Predator drone was used to resolve a conflict over cattle in North Dakota. One farmer was accused by his neighbor of refusing to return six cows which had strayed onto his land. A SWAT team standoff developed, and in response the US Department of Homeland Security deployed a surveillance drone to watch the farmer and his family. The incident ended peacefully, but numerous other, similar events have occurred nationwide.
Though drone use on the battlefield can make soldiers’ jobs safer and more effective, the use of unmanned aircraft systems and other military weapons by law enforcement on US soil is a disturbing thought. Such weapons would – and already do – give government agencies increasing power over citizens while infringing on those very citizens’ rights. Laws and resolutions passed by states are reassuring, but the number of applications to be test sites is equally unnerving.