Now Legal In North Dakota: Armed Drones


Over the 2013 and 2015 Legislative sessions here in North Dakota we had a debate about the use of drones by law enforcement. Specifically, whether or not cops should have to get warrants to use drones to spy on citizens.

Ultimately the proponents of the legislation won over the objections of law enforcement and economic development bureaucrats, the latter concerned that the legislation might deter the drone industry from investment in the state after a red carpet of incentives has been rolled out to them by state leaders.

But one wrinkle in the legislation is that it allows cops to arm drones. Albeit with non-deadly weapons, but still, the sort of weapons which if a North Dakota citizen wanted to carry around would likely require a concealed weapons permit. And those sort of drones already exist. The picture above is of CUPID, a drone armed with an 80,000 volt taser.

Section 5 of HB1328, sponsored by Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck), prohibits only the use of lethal weapons on drones. Meaning the use of things like, say, tasers or rubber bullet guns are legal. The Daily Beast today, in a profile of the legislation that’s not terribly flattering for law enforcement or other drone proponents in North Dakota, details how that careful wording came to be:

The bill’s stated intent was to require police to obtain a search warrant from a judge in order to use a drone to search for criminal evidence. In fact, the original draft of Rep. Rick Becker’s bill would have banned all weapons on police drones.

Then Bruce Burkett of North Dakota Peace Officer’s Association was allowed by the state house committee to amend HB 1328 and limit the prohibition only to lethal weapons. “Less than lethal” weapons like rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, sound cannons, and Tasers are therefore permitted on police drones.

Becker, the bill’s Republican sponsor, said he had to live with it.

“This is one I’m not in full agreement with. I wish it was any weapon,” he said at a hearing in March. “In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponized. Period.”

I think a lot of North Dakotans agree, though Becker should be commended for getting even this imperfect legislation through a storm of opposition from law enforcement lobbyists and drone industry supporters. To illustrate the attitude of the former group, consider this from the Daily Beast article:

Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said his department’s drones are only equipped with cameras and he doesn’t think he should need a warrant to go snooping.

“It was a bad bill to start with,” Rost told The Daily Beast. “We just thought the whole thing was ridiculous.”

Rost said he needs to use drones for surveillance in order to obtain a warrant in the first place.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” Becker remembered opponents like Rost saying.

Yikes. Maybe someone should follow Sheriff Rost around with a drone, documenting his activities, and see how he feels about it. I mean, if he’s not doing anything wrong…

Personally I’ve been a little chagrined at the way officials in North Dakota have rolled over for the drone industry. It’s one thing to welcome an emerging industry into the state. It’s another thing to steamroll civil rights concerns over the technology that industry is developing.

That Becker’s legislation – which wasn’t prohibitive and didn’t seek to ban drones or anything extreme like that but merely to define how they will fit into our society – met with such fierce opposition is disturbing.

I, for one, would be a lot more comfortable with North Dakota’s leaders throwing open the arms to embrace the drone industry if they were a little more circumspect about what drone use means for our society.