Iowa lawmakers seek to restrict drone use while expanding strip searches


By Paul Brennan | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES, Iowa — Last week, two subcommittees of the Iowa House of Representatives worked on bills involving privacy and the possibility of police overreach.

One bill was drafted to regulate the use of drones in Iowa. The other concerns strip searches.

The two subcommittees came to very different conclusions.

The use of drones by law enforcement has become a hot button issue around the country, especially as the unmanned aerial vehicles have become cheaper and easier to use. Even though they aren’t currently used by state agencies in Iowa, lawmakers still recognize the potential problems associated with their use.

“Nobody wants privacy invaded and everybody wants good public safety,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Jarrad Klein, R- Keota.

Klein said it’s important to have legislation in place before drones begin to be used, rather than wait and try to rein in excesses after they occur.

The bill before the subcommittee, HF 427, was first proposed last year. According to Rep. Clel Baulder, R-Greenfield, “it was poorly written [and] wasn’t thought out well.” So the text of the original bill was stripped out and completely replaced.

The Thursday meeting of the public safety subcommittee was the first time the new version of the bill was unveiled.

The fact the bill had been completely altered and no one had had time to study its new language didn’t stop the Iowa Peace Officers Association from opposing it.

No one else spoke out against the bill.

The IPOA representative said the bill was “too restrictive.” She didn’t specify what restrictions the IPOA found objectionable.

The newly reworked bill prohibits state and local government agencies from using drones to photograph or record images except on public lands or in accordance with a search warrant. There is a provision that allows law enforcement agencies to use drones in an emergency situation, provided a search warrant is obtained with 48 hours of their use.

MACHINES NO, PROBING FINGERS YES; Last week subcommittees of the Iowa House of Representative moved forward on both restricting drones but allowing more strip searches.

Unlike the previous version, the bill also now prohibits drones from being equipped with dangerous weapons or “an instrument that emits a peculiar sound or excessive noise.”

These new restrictions reflect the wider scope of the bill. Not only does it address drone use by government agencies, it also restricts how private citizens may use them.

Baulder explained that individuals can use drones to harass or intimidate neighbors or “stalk an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend.” Citizens would be allowed to use drones on their own property, but would otherwise be restricted from using them to “capture the image of another person or private property with the intent to harass, follow or intimidate another person.”

“There are as many bad uses for [drones], as good ones,” Baulder warned.

Good uses, according to speakers addressing the subcommittee, ranged from conducting traffic flow studies to news gathering. The subcommittee was especially interested in the possible use of drones in agriculture.

Using drones would allow farmers to more easily monitor their crops and animals.

One major problem beyond the possibility of using drones to harass or invade people’s privacy was also raised: the potential of drones to interfere with air traffic.

“Heck of a big safety hazard,” a representative of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association told the subcommittee. Drone controllers “have no idea what’s around them, because cameras in these units look downward.”

Klein said all these issues would be considered as the subcommittee continued to work on the bill. “This is our first go through this,” he said. “Nothing is in stone.”

He did, however, promise the focus would remain on ensuring drones aren’t used to violate people’s privacy.

There was less concern over privacy at the other House subcommittee meeting last week.

After a brief meeting, a House subcommittee voted 3-0 to send a bill expanding the authority of law enforcement officials to conduct strip searches to the full judiciary committee.

Under current Iowa law, only a person arrested for a serious misdemeanor or felony can be strip searched. HSB 510 would allow a person arrested for a simple misdemeanor — even a traffic violation — to be strip searched before being admitted to a jail’s general population if officials have probable cause to believe the person is concealing a contraband item.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Stan Gustafson, R-Indianola, felt that requiring a probable cause standard struck the right balance between preventing contraband to be brought into jail and the rights of people arrested for minor offenses.

The American Civil Liberties Union had objected to the original version of the bill, which only required the lower legal standard of reasonable suspicion to conduct a strip search.

Iowa Watchdog contacted the ACLU for comment on the revised bill, but hasn’t received a reply.

As the third week of the legislative season came to a close, the House was in the unique position of moving cautiously to make sure machines not yet in use won’t be used to violate the privacy of Iowans, while at the same time taking steps to lower the threshold for who can be subjected to the most intrusive searches possible.

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