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Lawmaker seeks to regulate use of drones in Illinois — before they arrive

Updated: February 14, 2013 4:16AM

SPRINGFIELD-Drone aircraft are best known for stealthily zipping over the Middle East in pursuit of terrorists.

But they may soon emerge as a crime-fighting tool in Illinois, prompting one state lawmaker Wednesday to introduce legislation to regulate their potential use.

“Now is the time to lay down appropriate privacy guidelines,” said state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), the bill’s chief sponsor. “We know that the technology is not yet being widely used. That gives the Legislature time to set a series of modest restrictions that will guard the privacy of all persons in Illinois.”

His push has the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been monitoring testing of the aircraft.

Some police forces in other states are expressing interest in the technology, and the Cook County Sheriff is also now considering the option, ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said.

“I think this bill is really a natural response to that,” he said. “This technology is going to be used in a number of places.”

Biss’ bill characterizes drones as “any aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator,” and it prohibits their use by law enforcement agencies with a number of exceptions.

For instance, if they first obtain a search warrant police could operate drones in order to prevent “imminent harm to life or serious damage to property or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence.”

But the warrant must be limited to a particular person or location and limited to a particular investigation. And the drone’s use would be limited to a period of 48 hours.

Police could also employ drones to counter federally recognized terrorist attacks. But the bill bars police from owning or operating drones equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

In any event, agencies would have to submit an annual report detailing their drone use.

As far as enforcing the guidelines set forth by Biss’ proposal, Yohnka said the ACLU would put its faith in the government.

“Once guidelines are in place, I think you have to depend on government agencies following the law,” he said. “I think that’s generally a truism.”

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