It’s a classic case of unintended consequences. A Republican lawmaker in North Dakota put forth legislation meant to prevent law enforcement officials from using unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct surveillance on private property without a warrant. It was transformed by fellow lawmakers into a bill allowing the police to mount Tasers, pepper spray, sound cannons and other “less-than-lethal” weapons on flying drones.
The legislation, House Bill 1328, was passed and signed into law earlier this year, but got little attention until this week, when a Daily Beast report pointed out the implications of the legislation: Law enforcement officers many miles away from suspects could have the authority to stun or otherwise incapacitate them.
To be clear, the fact that something like this is technically legal doesn’t mean that state and local police departments will necessarily embrace the practice of remotely subduing suspects. Police officers are generally subject to local and departmental rules that can substantially limit what tactics are allowed.
The original version of the bill included language that would have barred law enforcement from mounting weapons of any kind on a drone: “A state agency may not authorize the use of, including granting a permit to use, an unmanned aircraft armed with any lethal or nonlethal weapons, including firearms, pepper spray, bean bag guns, mace, and sound-based weapons,” it said.
Supporters of the state’s police union introduced an amendment to the bill that would allow less-than-lethal weapons to be mounted on drones, according to the Daily Beast’s Justin Glawe. The amended bill was ultimately passed and signed into law.
State Rep. Rick Becker this spring voiced his dismay at the changes to the bill in a public hearing, saying, “In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponized. Period.”
Drones have, of course, been weaponized for years — the strikes just haven’t been in the U.S. If North Dakota is taking the lead, however, that might be about to change.
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