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.