AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine State Police will have until February of next year to develop a policy on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for law enforcement, according to Gov. Paul LePage.
On Wednesday, LePage signed an executive order directing the Maine’s public safety commissioner to develop the policy.
“It is reasonable to ensure we have proper safeguards around the use of aircraft, whether manned or unmanned,” LePage said in a prepared statement.
The use of UAVs by police or drones was a hot-button issue for the Legislature in 2013 and a bill that would have required police to obtain a warrant before deploying a drone, except in for emergency purposes, was passed but then vetoed by LePage.
The bill’s chief author Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said the measure didn’t prohibit the use of the vehicles but did ensure individual rights as enshrined in both the state and U.S. constitutions were protected.
Support for the bill came from both liberal and conservative lawmakers but Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and others objected to the measure noting there were already protections in law regarding unlawful search and seizure.
Mills also argued that no police departments in Maine were currently in possession of any UAVs and they were not being deployed by law enforcement here. Mills asked lawmakers to allow the state’s Criminal Justice Academy board of directors, which includes nonpolice members, to study the issue and report back to the Legislature with suggestions in 2014. She suggested the Legislature place a one-year moratorium on their use.
The Maine State Police did purchase a UAV device for just over $300 but had not deployed it beyond testing and it was not being used for law enforcement purposes, according state police officials.
LePage’s order notes the federal government has made extensive use of drones and the vehicles do have the potential to be used in emergency to help protect public safety.
Also in the mix was concern that emerging Maine companies that are engaged in research and development on UAVs for law enforcement and the military would be damaged too strict a law banning drones.
LePage’s order also states, “overbroad statutes could have a negative impact on Maine’s ability to create good-paying aerospace jobs.”
UAVs have been used by other police agencies in the U.S. notably in Los Angeles County in California.
Eric Brakey, executive director of the Defense of Liberty PAC, said Friday that LePage’s executive order did not go far enough to protect citizens’ rights. Brakey said while members of his organization is typically supportive of LePage, they parted ways with him on this issue.
Brakey said his organization would continue its efforts to have a warrant requirement codified in state law. An executive order could easily be undone by the next governor or the next commissioner of public safety, Brakey said.
“Anything short of requiring a warrant for government to use drone surveillance on private citizens in Maine doesn’t go far enough,” Brakey said. “Without that it falls short.”
ACLU of Maine Executive Director Shenna Bellows agreed with Brakey.
“Mainers should not have to worry about warrantless law enforcement surveillance, and we were disappointed that the governor chose to veto warrant requirements for drone surveillance,” Bellows said in a prepared statement. “We recognize there may be valid public safety uses for drones, but a warrant requirement would not interfere with law enforcement doing their jobs.”
Bellows said she looked forward to working with the public safety commissioner on crafting a policy that protects citizens.
“But policy is not an adequate substitute for law,” Bellows said. “For that reason, we will continue working to put warrant requirements for drones into law.”