Even though Virginia law bars nearly all law enforcement use of unmanned aircraft until July of next year, the Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney is eager to get started.
Ronald K. Elkins claims the wording of the law should allow limited police use of drones during the current moratorium. He’s asking if Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring agrees with his view of the statute.
The ACLU of Virginia disagrees. The group says Elkins is trying to get around the clear intent of the General Assembly when it passed a two-year moratorium on police drones.
The statute – passed in 2012 – bars law enforcement use of an “unmanned aircraft system” before July 1, 2015.
Elkins says, since the law forbids use of a “system,” it is “clear that the use of single unmanned aerial vehicle” – authorized by a search warrant – would not be subject to the ban.
“This is a transparent effort to circumvent the clear intention of the legislature which was to ban ALL drone use by law enforcement and regulatory agencies for two years, except in very narrowly defined circumstances,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, ACLU of Virginia executive director.
Elkins said he has no intention of allowing general surveillance with a drone.
“My intention is not to violate anybody’s Fourth Amendment rights, absolutely not,” Elkins said in an interview. He proposes police drone use only with a specific search warrant.
Elkins said he can envision a number of ways drones could be useful, both for law enforcement and other government services. He said he wished authorities could have used a drone to help search for a missing child in one recent case.
Elkins said the commissioner of revenue might be able to better assess property values using drones to peer over fences. Officials might put up a drone to evaluate an illegal dump.
“I would love to have an aerial view of a crime scene as it’s being worked,” he said.
Elkins said the technology is there to aid authorities, and regulating it “will be an issue for years to come.”
The prosecutor said he would not be surprised if Herring does not agree with his interpretation of the moratorium language.
“I just want to have a definitive answer, once and for all,” he said.
Gastañaga said it’s time to discuss how the technology will be used after the moratorium expires.
“We hope that law enforcement will come to the table to discuss legislation to establish basic principles that will guide all future use of this technology instead of spending time trying to get around the moratorium now in place,” she said.