Gov. Jay Inslee vetoes drone regulations

Also announces 15-month moratorium on state agency drone use

Staff writerApril 4, 2014 

Gov Jay Inslee

LUI KIT WONG — Lui Kit Wong/2013

Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed legislation Friday that would have regulated government use of drones in Washington state.

Also Friday, Inslee also announced that he will prevent state agencies under his control from buying or using unmanned aircraft for surveillance during the next 15 months. The moratorium on drone use by state agencies will give the Legislature more time to craft new regulations, he said.

“We will protect personal privacy until legislators have another chance next year,” Inslee said.

House Bill 2789 would have required a search warrant for law enforcement agencies to use drone surveillance, except in emergency situations where someone is in danger of getting hurt.

Inslee said he chose to veto the drone bill partly because he was worried it would restrict the public’s access to data collected by the government – a concern also raised by a newspaper lobby group.

The bill contained provisions that would have prevented government agencies from disclosing personal information collected through drone surveillance.

It described personal information as “all information... that describes, locates, or indexes anything about a person.”

“This would bar the public from essentially any information that in any way could be considered identifiable to any individual,” Inslee said. "That’s a major, major carve-out in our public disclosure rules.”

The vetoed bill would have required legislative approval before state agencies could buy and use drones for policing or code enforcement. A local governing body — such as a city council or county council — would have needed to approve drone use by local police departments or sheriffs.

Inslee said he remains concerned about the need to protect citizens' privacy and establish rules to govern drone use.

Inslee's drone-use moratorium will apply to state agencies that fall under the executive branch, such as the Department of Transportation and the State Patrol, but not to agencies run by independently elected officials, such as the Commissioner of Public Lands.

Exceptions would be made in emergency situations, Inslee said.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said he was disappointed that Inslee vetoed the drone legislation, which he said “came out very bipartisan, with a lot of support.”

The bill passed the state House 77-21 and the state Senate 46-1 earlier this year.

"When you have emerging technologies, you do your best work and try to address the concerns," said Braun, who voted for House Bill 2789 in the Senate.

"A lot of work went into this,” Braun said. “I hate to see us go back clear to zero, but it looks like that’s what we’re doing.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington had lobbied in support of the bill, saying that unregulated use of drones would threaten citizens’ right to privacy.

ACLU-WA lobbyist Shankar Narayan said Friday that he thinks Inslee’s moratorium is insufficient to prevent state agencies’ use of drones. Narayan said he thinks state agencies could buy the drones for emergency use and later deploy them without oversight.

“We are now going to have another period of time where we have the Wild West, where we have no restrictions,” Narayan said.

Inslee told reporters that local governments wouldn’t be covered by his 15-month moratorium on drone use, but he is asking police departments and sheriffs to also abstain from the practice.

During the past month, a newspaper lobby group and some newspaper editorial boards urged Inslee to veto the drone bill, saying it was too broad and would negatively affect access to public records.

The measure would have directed government agencies to keep records of each time they use a drone. But agencies would have needed to destroy surveillance information collected by drones — either 30 days after the information is longer needed in court, or within 10 days of being gathered if it was collected in error.

Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said those provisions would have limited the public’s ability to understand how government agencies are using – and potentially abusing — drone technology.

“That’s really when you’re going to look at it the most, is when something goes wrong,” Thompson said.

The Legislature could override Inslee’s veto of the drone bill with a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

But Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said he thinks that outcome would be unlikely. The last time the Legislature successfully voted to override a gubernatorial veto was in 1998.

“Probably the most likely thing is the Legislature will work on it again in 2015,” Padden said Friday.

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