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New bill would limit when police in Ohio can use drones in criminal investigations

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 11/11/2021 Jeremy Pelzer, cleveland.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Two new Ohio House bills filed this week seek to create the state’s first significant regulations on the use of drones by the public and law enforcement.

House Bills 485 and 486, introduced by Republican state Rep. Adam Holmes of Zanesville, would, respectively, set rules about where and how private drones can be used and require police to obtain a search warrant in most instances for surveillance and data collection purposes.

Drone operators in Ohio already have to follow federal rules put into place by the Federal Aviation Administration.

HB485, which sets rules for private drone operators, bans using unmanned drones “in a careless or reckless manner that endangers any person or property, or with willful or wanton disregard for the rights or safety of others.” Violators could face up to six months in prison and a $500 fine.

The legislation would also prohibit using drones in a way that interferes with first responders’ work or in any manner prohibited by federal law or regulations. Doing so would be a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The bill would further make it illegal to use a drone to take pictures or video, or “loiter,” over or near a critical facility — including courthouses, prisons, jails, public safety or emergency operations facilities, military installations, and hospitals that receive air ambulance services — “in furtherance of any criminal offense.”

First-time offenders would face a fourth-degree felony charge punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine. Repeat offenders could get as much as three years behind bars and a $10,000 fine.

In addition to these state drone limits, local governments would also be allowed to enact their own rules about the use of drones in or above parks or other public property.

HB486, meanwhile, would create several detailed rules for law enforcement to follow when using drones. For example, information collected using drones wouldn’t be admissible in a criminal court proceeding unless authorities first obtain a search warrant.

The bill lays out several details that applications for such search warrants must include, including the circumstances when the drone will be used, the specific information that law enforcement intends to collect, how police expect to use that information, and how and when the data collected will be destroyed.

Police wouldn’t be allowed to keep drone data for more than 90 days unless it’s relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial, and authorities state in writing that there’s a reasonable suspicion that it’s evidence of a crime. However, law enforcement must keep accurate information on the logistics of each drone surveillance flight for at least five years.

Law enforcement wouldn’t need a warrant to conduct drone surveillance when an individual is in imminent danger of being killed or suffering bodily harm or when they’re surveying damage after a weather-related or environmental catastrophe. Drones would also be permitted without warrants to patrol within 25 miles of the Canadian border to stop the illegal entry of any person or substance.

Police would not be allowed to use drones armed with any lethal weapon, nor could they conduct drone surveillance of individuals who are demonstrating or otherwise “lawfully exercising their constitutional rights.”

Kenji Sugahara, president and CEO of the Drone Service Providers Alliance, an industry trade group, said in a statement that Holmes’ bills are “very reasonable” and that his group supports legislation like this.

“Specifically, we appreciate that the prohibition on using drones is tied to taking photos and videos of critical infrastructure in furtherance of a crime,” Sugahara added. “(The legislation) also doesn’t regulate airspace, which is under federal control.”

The only part of the legislation that Sugahara expressed concern about was the part of HB485 allowing local governments to set rules about drones in the air above a park. While local officials can regulate takeoffs and landings in parks, he said, airspace is in the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Cleveland.com has reached out to Holmes for comment on his bills, which have yet to be assigned to a House committee.

Each of the two bills has three additional Republican co-sponsors, including House Majority Floor Leader Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican.

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