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Legislature looking at limiting law enforcement use of drones

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Minnesota law enforcement agencies don't have their own drone aircraft yet. But lawmakers may opt to set some ground rules for the use of unmanned planes before they become part of the crime-fighting toolbox.

The Associated Press reports privacy advocates are cheering the move. Republic Rep. Brian Johnson of Cambridge is leading the push for a bill that would require a search warrant before law enforcement agencies could use drones for surveillance.

The bill makes an exception for cases in which there's an imminent threat to life or property. Johnson tells the AP it's meant to strike a balance between the needs of law enforcement on one hand and the civil rights and privacy of Minnesotans on the other.

The scope of the bill is limited to law enforcement agencies. Rules governing the commercial use of drones are being developed by the Federal Aviation Administration. That agency recently notified a Wisconsin brewery, Lakemaid Beer, that its experiment with using a drone to deliver beer to anglers on a frozen Minnesota lake is not a legal use of the technology.

As for law enforcement use of cameras on drones, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension confirmed to Public Record Media last month that it did use unmanned aerial vehicles in its investigation of a possible marijuana-growing operation. The Bureau says it used drones that belong to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and used them only over public lands.

Last week California put limits on drones, including a ban on arming them with weapons and a requirement that public agencies destroy any data collected by drones within six months.

A bill similar to Johnson's was introduced in the Minnesota Senate last year by Republican Sean Nienow. One DFL critic of the measure told KSTP then that it's unnecessary because existing search and seizure laws already protect the privacy of citizens.

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