Charlottesville leads Virginia in drone moratorium legislation

Perhaps it was just the coincidence of happening on the same night that NBC News revealed an Obama Administration “white paper” rationalizing the extrajudicial killings of American citizens by drones overseas, but the Charlottesville City Council’s resolution to bar city agencies from using drones to spy on city residents made national news. It was, for a time on Tuesday, the top story on the front page of the Drudge Report, for instance.

The Charlottesville effort was spearheaded by the Rutherford Institute, a local public-interest law firm and civil-liberties advocacy group headed by founder John Whitehead, who achieved a measure of recognition in the 1990s when he represented Paula Jones in her lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton.

While the final version of the City Council’s February 4 resolution varied somewhat from the model presented by the Rutherford Institute, the primary purpose remained the same:

The resolution is intended to “encourage the General Assembly of Virginia to provide for limitations on the use of evidence obtained from the domestic use of drones and to preclude the domestic use of drones equipped with anti-personnel devices” (that is, weapons).

It notes that “the federal government and the Commonwealth of Virginia have thus far failed to provide reasonable legal restrictions on the use of drones within the United States” and that police departments have started to use drone technology without “any guidance or guidelines from lawmakers.”

Indeed, that first purpose — to “encourage the General Assembly” — had an immediate effect, because on February 5 (the next day), the House of Delegates passed HB 2012, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-Amherst). The full text of that bill, which is quite brief, is:

1. § 1. No state or local agency or organization having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations, including but not limited to the Department of State Police, and no department of law enforcement as defined in § 15.2-836 of any county, city, or town shall utilize an unmanned aircraft system before July 1, 2015.

[ 2. Notwithstanding the prohibition in paragraph A of this section, an unmanned aircraft system may be deployed before July 1, 2015 when an Amber Alert is activated pursuant to § 52-34.3, when a Senior Alert is activated pursuant to § 52-34.6, when a Blue Alert is activated pursuant to § 52-34.9, or for the purpose of a search and rescue operation. In no case may a weaponized unmanned aircraft system be deployed or its use facilitated by a state or local agency in Virginia. ]

What this succession of events proves, if nothing else, is that the protection of civil liberties is a bipartisan issue. The Charlottesville resolution passed an all-Democrat City Council by a vote of 3 to 2; HB 2012 had six Republican copatrons and passed the House by a vote of 83 to 16.

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  • J. Christopher Stearns

    Bravo, Charlottesville!

  • Next step: make it legal to shoot these things out of the sky.

  • MD Russ

    Really? Armed drones? And when is Charlottesville going to ban black helicopters with UN insignia?

    This stupidity reminds me of when the City Council of The Peoples’ Republic of Alexandria spent about two weeks passing legislation making Alexandria a Nuclear-Free Zone, punishable by a $50 fine for possessing or detonating a nuclear weapon in the city limits.

    • The point is to prohibit local police agencies from using drones in a manner that violates the Fourth Amendment. Americans have an expectation of privacy and police agencies should not be using drone technology to spy on us in our homes and businesses. Comparing this matter to “black helicopters” or “nuclear free zones” muddies the issue, because local legislative bodies (and the General Assembly) actually have the authority to prevent agencies under their supervision from using unconstitutional means to restrict and violate the liberties of citizens.

      • MD Russ


        Are any police agencies considering weaponized drones? Now that is something that I would have a problem with.

        As for the Fourth Amendment, I fail to see the difference between observation drones and surveillance cameras, covert GPS trackers (which the Roberts Court recently upheld), manned aircraft such as helicopters, or binoculars and telescopes. It is just a matter of improved technology, not some fundamental invasion of civil liberties.

        I am not trying to muddy the issue with references to black helicopters and nuclear-free zones. I am just trying to illustrate the silly paranoia that accompanies this entire drone debate.

        Hypothetical question: your teenage daughter has been carjacked. Should the police be allowed to use a drone to locate her car? How about a helicopter? How about tracing her cell phone signal by GPS? What is the difference?

        • I wish I could be as sanguine as you are about the police use of technology. I’m sure that 20 years ago, many people would have been aghast at the idea of local police routinely using military weapons and said it’s not a realistic possibility. And yet:

          • MD Russ

            Nice try at obfuscating the question, Rick. The Huff Post? Really?

            20 years ago people were aghast at the fact that drug dealers out-gunned the police. Exactly what does the type of weapons used by police have to do with the Fourth Amendment, other than your attempt to use emotion and fear where logic fails?

          • Radley Balko is one of the country’s leading experts on the militarization of the civilian police forces. That his article appeared in the Huffington Post is irrelevant as to its accuracy and thoroughness. (He used to write for Reason and he was on the staff at the Cato Institute, as well.)

            And yes, I do think that giving the police tanks and mortars has an effect on our constitutional liberties. It threatens not only our rights under the Fourth Amendment but also under the Second. Your point about drug dealers only underscores my own: if the government had not escalated the drug war in the 1980s, it never would have had to ratchet up the arms race in the 1990s and after.

            I’m sure that Benjamin Franklin is as unworthy a source for you as the Huffington Post, but he was right when he said that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

          • MD Russ

            I am very familiar with Ben Franklin’s quote on freedom and security. He also said, “There has never been a good war or a bad peace.” No wonder that he appeals to Libertarians–he was a pacifist. I prefer John Stuart Mills “The Ugliest Thing” quote: “A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight
            for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal
            safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless
            made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” That includes the war on drugs.

          • MD Russ

            BTW, Rick. I am aware of police departments that have armored cars. However, I don’t know of any with tanks or mortars. And please don’t point to Waco. Those were not tanks but unarmed M88A2 tank retrievers and they came from the Army at Fort Hood. However, your average media reporter doesn’t know the difference, just like they frequently assume that all drones are armed. Most aren’t.

  • Al Cardenas of the American Conservative Union has issued a statement praising the Virginia General Assembly on the drone moratorium:

    “The American Conservative Union commends the Virginia General Assembly for passing legislation that would place a two year moratorium on the use of drones by local police and governments and urges states all over the country to follow suit.

    “We must ensure that, as new technology develops, our protections of Americans’ privacy advance equally. In many cases, aerial surveillance is being conducted without search warrants and with no safeguards in place to restrict the use of information gained from that surveillance. Government use of unmanned aerial vehicles should be strictly regulated to ensure the citizen’s rights are not violated in the rush to implement these new tools.

    “The ACU applauds Virginia for being one of the first states to take steps to protect its citizens from the negative consequences of the use of this new technology and encourages legislators from all states to continue this conversation across the nation.”

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