Oklahoma lawmakers want to regulate drones in state; opponents say legislation is premature

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Concerned about the growing presence of drones in the skies above Oklahoma, a couple of state lawmakers have filed legislation to rein in their use.

But state officials trying to attract unmanned aerial vehicle designers and manufacturers say it is premature for the Oklahoma Legislature to regulate their use until the Federal Aviation Administration adopts national guidelines for operating drones.

"We are not in agreement with any legislation at this time until the FAA publishes its rules and regulations," Toney Stricklin, a retired major general of the U.S. Army and a member of the Oklahoma Unmanned Aircraft Council, said Wednesday. The FAA is expected to propose new drone regulations this fall.

At least two bills that would regulate the use of drones are pending in the 2015 Legislature, including one by Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, that would prohibit public agencies and law enforcement authorities in the state from using unmanned aerial vehicles without a search warrant or in other limited circumstances.

Wesselhoft said the measure is designed to protect the privacy rights of Oklahoma residents and does not apply to the use of drones by private individuals.

"I just want to protect our citizens against unreasonable search," Wesselhoft said. "I just want to make sure our government is not doing that to our citizens."

A second measure by Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, would exempt property owners from civil liability for damaging or destroying a drone that is on their property or within its airspace.

Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, said his agency does not use drones but that officials have discussed their application in drug investigations.

"We run a lot of high risk search warrants," Woodward said. Many cases involve open fields in parts of the state where agents suspect marijuana is being grown illegally, he said.

Piloting a drone over the sight instead of sending a team of agents to serve a search warrant could put eyes on the target without risking a person's safety.

"You could send a drone over to find out where they are quietly," Woodward said. He said his agency would likely seek a search warrant before using a drone in an investigation.

Stricklin said state attempts to regulate drones are well meaning but largely unnecessary.

"I think everybody just needs to take a deep breath and let the FAA do its work," Stricklin said.

But Brady Henderson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said the FAA's new rules will address public safety, not individual privacy.

"Bills like Wesselhoft's are very much necessary," Henderson said. He said state lawmakers should give law enforcement authorities rules to follow when using drones to prevent abuses.

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