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Va. Senate panel backs two-year moratorium on drones

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee today approved an amended bill that would effectively ground for two years the use of drones by Virginia law enforcement agencies except in emergencies.

Senate Bill 1331, sponsored by Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, was reported with bipartisan support on the GOP-controlled committee.

The amended legislation would impose a two-year moratorium on the use of the unmanned aircraft, allowing for study of the implications of their use by government and law enforcement agencies. Meantime, law enforcement agencies that have drones could use them in the event of a public safety emergency, including for aid in Amber Alert, Senior Alert and police emergencies.

At issue is whether the unmanned aircraft, which the military has used extensively in the Middle East for surveillance and to attack potential terrorist targets, potentially violate rights to privacy that people have in their homes and on private property.

The issue has made allies of groups that don't typically find consensus. Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke in support of the bill, which also has the backing of tea party groups, the Farm Bureau and an agricultural business council.

She said police can currently have people followed by drones just about anywhere without a warrant, and warned that a person's home, business or backyard should not be under surveillance 24 hours a day.

“It's leading us closer to a Big Brother society,” she said. “The citizens of Virginia want a policy that protects their privacy.”

John Jones of the Virginia Sheriff's Association said law enforcement views the use of drones “as an officer safety issue,” but acknowledged, “We recognize there are civil liberties issues.”

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