Police in North Dakota are now legally authorized to use drones armed with “non-lethal” weapons, like tasers, tear-gas, bean bags and rubber bullets.
The law that gave them this authorization, House Bill 1328, was never intended to make weaponized drones legal. Its original purpose was actually to ensure that police had to obtain warrants before using drones for surveillance. In fact, the initial draft of the bill explicitly banned the use of all weapons on police drones.
But before HB 1328 could make it to North Dakota’s House of Representatives to be put to a vote, the state house committee allowed Bruce Burkett, a law enforcement lobbyist from the North Dakota Peace Officer’s Association, to review and even edit the bill.
Burkett proceeded to change the wording of HB 1328 so that it only prohibited the use of lethal weaponry, though it’s worth pointing out that “non-lethal” weapons like tasers have also been known to cause death.
Rep. Rick Becker, the Republican lawmaker who sponsored the original bill, was not at all happy with the change. At a hearing back in March, Becker said,
“This is one I’m not in full agreement with. I wish it was any weapon… In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponized. Period.”
Becker also expressed concern about giving police the ability to use force against civilians from behind the screen of a computer terminal, saying,
“When you’re not on the ground, and you’re making decisions, you’re sort of separate. Depersonalized.”
Drones have become big business in North Dakota, a state that has been hit particularly hard by the recent oil bust. Over the past few years, numerous companies developing autonomous machines for commercial and agricultural purposes have sprung up all around the state.
Grand Forks, the state’s third largest city, is home to the University of North Dakota, which offers a four-year drone degree program. The city will also soon be home to a drone research development park, a venture made possible by a partnership between the U.S. Air Force and the private sector in Grand Forks.
So it may come as no surprise that HB 1328 faced a lot of push-back from people who were worried that the bill could somehow limit commercial development of drones in North Dakota. According to The Daily Beast,
A representative from the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the vice president of an economic development group, the founder of a drone company, and the director of the University of North Dakota’s drone major program all testified against the bill.
When asked by a state representative how requiring warrants for surveillance would restrict development, Keith Lund, VP of the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Corporation, gave the following answer:
“It’s really all about the commercial development, which is where all of this is heading… If [a law] is somehow limiting commercial, law enforcement development… that is a negative in terms of companies looking and investing in opportunities in the state of North Dakota.”
Rep. Becker has been fighting to limit the use of drones by law enforcement since 2011. His crusade began after a controversial incident in which North Dakota police had the Department of Homeland Security reroute a Predator drone from the Canadian border to help them catch a cattle thief who was holed up in his ranch.
With business interests fighting to kill HB 1328, Becker worried that the bill might not get passed at all. In the end, he decided it was better to get the bill passed with the controversial wording about weapons than to let it die, allowing law enforcement to continue using surveillance drones without a warrant.
Read the full story from The Daily Beast.