AUGUSTA, Maine – The State Senate voted, 23-12, in favor of a bill that would require police to obtain a warrant before using unmanned aerial vehicles or drones to collect evidence in a criminal investigation.

The bill, LD 236, allows police to use the vehicles for emergency law enforcement activities as well as for search and rescue efforts.

The bill also prohibits the use of facial recognition software on drones and disallows police to use weaponized drones. Both technologies are allowed for research and development by private companies working on drones.

In a series of roll call votes Monday night the Senate first rejected the Legislature’s Judiciary Committees majority report, which would have placed a moratorium on drone use by police for one year while a committee organized by the state’s criminal justice academy studied the matter.

That majority report was supported by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

Mills said Monday the state and federal constitutions already protect Maine citizens against warrantless searchers, regardless of the method of surveillance.

Mills has also said there are no police agencies in Maine currently using drones for law enforcement activities.

In the 23-12 vote the Senate adopted the minority report on the bill favored by civil liberty advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“With this vote, the Maine Senate recognized the importance of protecting Mainers’ privacy,” Oamshri Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine said in a prepared statement. “Drones can have very valid uses such as search and rescue in remote areas, but Mainers should not have to live in fear of drones hovering over their backyards watching them and their families.”

The original version of the bill was offered by state Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford.

The Maine House will vote on the bill next.

The issue of drone use by civilian law enforcement agencies has also drawn the attention of lawmakers in Washington. Several there, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have sponsored bills to require warrants when drones are used by police.


Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.