AUGUSTA — The buzz of high-flying police surveillance drones in the airspace above Maine is not yet common, and that's why state Sen. John Patrick hopes the Legislature will support a bill that regulates the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
"This is a real opportunity for us to be proactive on something," the Rumford Democrat said Tuesday morning before a hearing on his bill in the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Patrick said the bill doesn't aim to prohibit the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones or UAVs, it just sets some parameters for their use, including requiring a judge to issue a search warrant that shows police have probable cause before they are allowed to use the vehicles to gather evidence.
Patrick said his bill is raising a lot of questions, including whether the surveillance video from drones operated by government entities would be subject to the state's Freedom of Access Act.
Maine Deputy Attorney General William Stokes urged the panel to slow down as it contemplates all the complexities surrounding the use of the technology.
Stokes, speaking on behalf of Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, suggested the Legislature impose a one-year moratorium on the use of drones by law enforcement while the Legislature works out the details. He said Patrick's bill, while well-intended, has several flaws, including that the description of a drone in the bill doesn't include whether it even has a camera.
Stokes suggested that the Maine Criminal Justice Academy Board of Trustees, with citizen input, develop a protocol for law-enforcement drone use.
"Drones aren't being used at this time, as far as I know, by law enforcement," Stokes said. "So a moratorium really does no harm."
Patrick's bill is focused on the use of drones in private spaces, but Stokes said the law should also consider the use of drones in public spaces.
Stokes said a year would be a reasonable time frame for coming up with a suitable law.
Several others speaking against the bill said there were specific uses of the technology that shouldn't be banned in Maine, including the use of drones for aerial photography for land surveying or for emergency search-and-rescue operations.
Christopher Taylor, the president of Viking Unmanned Aerial Systems Inc., based in Limington, told the committee that his company has been involved in the research and development of drones since 2008.
Taylor offered his company's services to any municipality or state agency that wanted to further study the technology.
"Although technology is and can be scary to some and maybe most (people), it has limitations," Taylor said. " ... Those limitations should be researched and understood prior to restricting any use of the technology."
Taylor suggested that Maine could be the leader and set the example for other states' drone regulation.
Others speaking in favor of the bill, including Eric Brakey of New Gloucester, chairman of the Defense of Liberty PAC, said Patrick's bill had bipartisan support.
"Regardless of our political party we can all understand the desire to be free from aggressions on our privacy and our liberty here in the state of Maine," Brakey said.
Brakey and others said the Legislature should consider the Fourth Amendment right that protects citizens against unwarranted searches and seizure.
Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine, which supports the bill, said drone technology was already commercially available and easily obtainable, yet Maine had no regulations concerning its use.
She said the ACLU was involved because it wants to ensure the Fourth Amendment is protected.
Bellows said in the course of one week ACLU of Maine staff members were able to find three drones that could have been taken to the State House. They did bring two Tuesday.
"Drones are relatively cheap, easy to obtain and within the space of a few years may be ubiquitous in the American airspace," Bellows said. "Technology has turned science fiction writers into prophets."
Patrick, the bill's author, said there were at least 15 other states seeking to limit drone use, including Virginia, which passed a two-year moratorium.
"I hope this legislation will be the beginning of a much-need conversation about bringing our privacy laws up to date and protecting both safety and privacy in Maine," Patrick said.
At least one lawmaker on the committee Tuesday had a visceral reaction to the idea a drone could be spying on him in his house or his yard.
"If I saw one of these flying over my house," Rep. Wayne Mitchell, D-Indian Island, said, "I'd shoot it down." Mitchell is a nonvoting member of the Legislature representing the Penobscot Nation.
The committee will take Patrick's bill up again during a work session scheduled for Thursday, March 7.