Comment

Martinez: North Carolina's need to nail down drone details

March 12, 2013 

Here’s hoping the N.C. General Assembly has a Rand Paul in its ranks. The Kentucky senator used a 13-hour filibuster to try to force the black-ops wing of the Obama administration to clarify its drone policy regarding the use of lethal force on U.S. soil.

There are plenty of drone-related questions North Carolina legislators need to ask. Someone needs to be willing to emulate Paul’s commitment and push for answers on what parameters, if any, will be enforced on the use of drones in North Carolina.

It’s only a matter of time before drones fill our skies. Last week, the Monroe City Council gave its police department a qualified OK to buy a Maveric, a drone built by Charlotte-based Condor Aerial Optics LLC. The company says the Maveric is used by the Navy’s Seal Team Six, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden.

But make no mistake. Law enforcement is the market Condor is targeting. The company is a corporate partner of the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriff’s Association. Condor is selling the Maveric to Monroe for $44,000, a 57 percent discount from the list price, in part to get a North Carolina police department as a client.

Law enforcement’s enthusiasm for drones is understandable. They greatly increase surveillance capability. A Monroe police official told his city council that the Maveric is ideal for chasing bank robbers. And what police department wouldn’t love to have a drone to search for a kid lost in the woods? Imagine the capability that drones could provide to emergency management officials in the aftermath of a hurricane or other disaster.

There is little doubt drones will be part of North Carolina’s future. The challenge for the state’s version of Rand Paul is to prevent privacy abuses. Local officials, no doubt, will assure us that the drones will not be used for spying. Public hearings will be held and policies written. But how will we know if those policies are being adhered to? What body will issue sanctions if those policies are violated?

The biggest lesson Paul’s filibuster taught us is the need for judicial oversight of drones. Soon, cost will not be a prohibitive factor for at-will, around-the-clock police observation. Therefore, the General Assembly must provide the courts a clear definition of when investigative surveillance becomes governmental harassment. Lawmakers must also provide the courts a way to remedy any citizen who becomes the target of undue surveillance.

Above all, public safety must not be the fulcrum for unwarranted government intrusion. With the advent of drones, the fundamental right to be left alone must also include the right not to be seen.

Before North Carolina police departments start buying and launching drones, these issues must be addressed in a thoughtful, reasoned way. The last thing we need is to become embroiled in the type of knee-jerk, anti-drone overreaction that’s occurring in Florida.

A bill there would prohibit evidence gathered by a drone from being introduced in court. That makes no sense. If the Monroe police department uses a drone to search for that fleeing bank robber and records the suspect carjacking a vehicle, what privacy right is being protected by prohibiting the evidence from being admitted in court?

A reasoned discussion of drone use requires a clear understanding of what privacy means in North Carolina. If a police department can station an officer outside your house without a warrant, is flying a drone above your house materially different? If an investigator can easily observe what’s going on in your front yard from across the street, can a detective at a computer terminal observe your backyard from a drone? Do property rights need to be broadened to include an expectation of privacy?

It is a mistake to leave these issues to local police departments, city attorneys or town councils. A hodgepodge of local laws isn’t the answer. These are questions the Rand Paul of the General Assembly must bring up.

And the sooner, the better.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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