SPRINGFIELD — Despite opposition from the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, a bill restricting law enforcement's use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, cleared an Illinois Senate committee Wednesday.
The Senate Criminal Law Committee approved Senate Bill 1587 on a 7-2, bipartisan roll call. Among those supporting the measure was Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. He is a former prosecutor.
For now, the legislation affects only law enforcement although sponsor Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, admitted that there is interest in expanding the reach of the legislation, including private-sector use.
"These are all important questions for us as a body to resolve," he said. "What we're doing to address all those questions is putting together a resolution to create a committee that will have participation from law enforcement, civil libertarians, the legal community, the business community — to engage in all these different, but relevant, questions about how to put in place the appropriate remedies."
The bill would restrict law enforcement agencies in Illinois from using drones to gather information without a search warrant, Biss said.
There are exceptions, he added, including countering suspected acts of terrorism, for cases where "swift action is needed to prevent imminent harm to life," in searching for a missing person or for crime scene photography.
Biss admitted that the issue "almost sounds silly when people first hear about it, but with this technology, the potential for the invasion of what all of us would say is the reasonable expectation of privacy is absolutely there."
But "Limey" Nargelinas, a lobbyist for the police chiefs' association, argued that the bill is too restrictive.
"This is a whole new technology that is just now coming to the forefront that law enforcement may or may not be able to use in many situations," he said. "We presently use helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, squad cars, and to select the drone and makes its use so restrictive that we can't use it ... this is a technology that could be very cost-efficient for us. To send up a helicopter or an airplane, the cost is tremendous for us."
Adam Schwartz of the Illinois Civil Liberties Union argued that because drones are inexpensive, "they are going to massively proliferate and be much more common than these helicopters and airplanes. And whereas helicopters and airplanes are loud and large and obvious, the drones are going to be small and quiet and secretive."
Under questioning by Righter, Nargelinas said that police agencies now can conduct aerial surveillance of homes and yards without a warrant, using planes and helicopters.
"In order to have a really reasonable expectation of privacy you're going to have to build a canopy over your yard," Righter said.