HB296: Box Elder sheriff speaks up for changing police drone rules


By John Gibbons
Capital West News

SALT LAKE CITY —  The Box Elder County Sheriff told lawmakers that he supports a bill that would allow law enforcement greater ease to use the unmanned vehicles in search and rescue missions while civil liberty groups agreed to restrictions that they say protects privacy.

Lawmakers, a libertarian lobby group and the ACLU all joined forces to help move a bill forward that would allow law enforcement in Utah to use drones without a warrant in locations where the expectation of privacy is not present, such as in cases of search and rescue or to gather data at crash sites. A House committee passed the bill on Tuesday, Feb. 24, in a 9-0 vote.

The bill, HB296, if enacted would allow greater access to the testing of drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), and reduced reporting requirements, Rep. Scott Sandall, the Republican sponsor of the bill from Tremonton; Marina Lowe, the ACLU of Utah; and Connor Boyack of Libertas Institute told lawmakers they had resolved earlier disputes about civil liberties questions raised by the bill.

Concerned with issues of privacy, Lowe and Boyack agreed to eliminate loopholes that may enabled remote surveillance. The bill tightly controls the storage and usage of data captured during rescue missions as well as how long the data are stored.

Box Elder County Sheriff Kevin Potter had been interested in using drones in his jurisdiction, which is in line with his mission statement that the sheriff “is focused and dedicated to the citizens and communities and uses imagination, innovation and resourcefulness.”  Certainly using the newest and finest tech is imaginative, innovative and resourceful but he said the current requirements for reporting were burdensome.

Potter said the use of drones was the late Sheriff Lynne Yates’s idea.

“Right behind Willard there are 4,000-foot faces. People get into trouble a few times a year and we send rescue teams from the bottom,” said Potter.

Unfortunately people don’t always know which canyon someone has gone up. “While a rescue party can go up one canyon, a drone can go up the other. Usually it takes hours to try to pin-point [a lost person], but with a drone, search and rescue could save vital time,” Potter said.

Drones can be expensive, however because of training. “A guy has to go to a 400-hour ground pilot school.It requires two people, one spots, one flies,” he said.

While sometimes rescuers have other assets — such the single state helicopter — repairs may cause delays and medical helicopters may have to leave a rescue scene if there are other medical emergencies.

The only committee questions came from Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, who applauded the sponsor and former opponents for working together to come to a compromise and then asked about concerns for future use of drones.

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