Va. weighs bill to expand police use of drones

WASHINGTON — As more local police departments purchase drones, Virginia lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would expand law enforcement agencies’ abilities to use unmanned aircraft systems.

Virginia’s state Senate has approved a conference committee report on a proposal, originating in the House, that would allow local and state police, as well as the Virginia Department of Transportation, to use drones in accident reconstruction.

Under current legislation, in most cases, police have to get a search warrant to launch a drone, for the purpose of gathering video and photos.

However, under this bill, a drone could be used without a warrant in cases where police are required to file a crash report, because of personal injury, death, or property damage of $1,500 or more.

Other warrant exceptions include during an Amber Alert, Silver Alert or when a person is in immediate danger.

House Bill 1482 was introduced by Republican Del. Bob Thomas, whose district is comprised of parts of the City of Fredericksburg and Stafford County.

According to a 2017 report by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, at least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units in the United States have acquired drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration has strict rules for operating a drone legally, including distance from airports, flying under 400 feet, during the day, within sight of the operator and not over a crowd of people.

Many departments have been granted waivers to be able to fly at night.

Virginia is one of several states with a law specifying “in no case may a weaponized unmanned aircraft system be deployed in the Commonwealth,” by any entity, including police.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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