At Interdrone, the International Drone Conference in Las Vegas, Sept. 9-11, John Abbey exposed the crazy quilt of laws that make progress with drone technology difficult if not impossible. Abbey is nationally recognized as a leader in technology and practices for law enforcement. With over 20 years of experience, including time as a Chief of Police, he led teams responsible for establishing the 911 number in California, bringing computers to police cars, and creating field crime analysis and digital mugshots.
During 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions, over 30 bills aimed at regulating drones have been introduced across the country. Fourteen have become law. Advocates of the laws claim they are driven by a concern for public safety. Abbey said advocates used “wild stories” of “drones flying down the Las Vegas Strip” and “drones peering through bedroom windows” to pass urgent legislation. He said that these tales were false and misleading the public.
“Of course,” Abbey admitted, “drone hobbyists flying too close to airports is not a good thing. The law passed recently in Nevada, however, made it sound that if it wasn’t passed, the world was going to end.”
The anti-drone coalition, according to Abbey, is made up of an unusual combination of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on one end of the spectrum and conservative-libertarians on the other. “They are falsely associating domestic drones with military vehicles,” he said.
“I have talked to legislators in Nevada and not one of them had ever seen a drone or watched one fly,” Abbey said. “Their main concern seems to be that drones would catch them speeding on Highway 395. You tell them that the drone in question can only fly for 20 minutes and it’s as if they don’t hear you.”
The intent of the ACLU, according to Abbey, is to legislatively extend Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure in such a manner as to hamstring police efforts to gather evidence.
Abbey said that their position boils down to: “Drones aren’t fair because they make it too easy to gather evidence on people.”
Abbey then asked, “Don’t you think that the biggest protection to privacy would be to capture the burglar?”
“Nevada AB 239 has had unintended consequences as well,” Abbey said. “It allows you to deliver a pizza but not to use an image taken with a drone to establish probable cause for an investigation.
“You cannot share the picture, and not even use it to develop reasonable suspicion. The legislation is intended to stop use. If you can’t use the evidence you find, why are you going to bother putting a drone in the air?”
Many mainstream technologies people use daily, according to Abbey, were developed by the military and government. “This prohibition will suppress development,” he said.
California SB 142 was vetoed by California Governor Brown while the Interdrone conference was taking place. According to Abbey, its results would have been even more draconian. “It was intended to stop the market,” he said. “All you had to do to be liable for damages and misdemeanor arrest was to fly over someone’s property.”
Abbey said that he had been told personally by an anti-drone advocate: “As soon as we get rid of the drones, we’ll go after the helicopters.”
Abbey hopes to be able to build a national coalition that can advocate for drone technology. “There is plenty of time and room to preserve privacy rights,” he said. “We need to fight the distortions the ACLU spreads.
“There are 300,000 drones out there flying, and there have only been about a dozen incidents, none of which have resulted in a fatality. You can be in law enforcement, agricultural or architectural photography or land mapping and the anti-drone people lump you in with the guy who landed a drone on the White House lawn.”