Ohio House Committee Considers Drone Surveillance Restrictions

House Transportation Committee
Ohio House Transportation, Public Safety, and Homeland Security Committee

Ohio Representative Rex Damschroder (R-Fremont) described House Bill 207 (HB 207) as an attempt to “get out in front” of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) use by law enforcement in testimony before the House Transportation, Public Safety, and Homeland Security Committee this week.

Introduced by Damschroder in June, HB 207 would require local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants before using UAVs — commonly referred to as drones — to collect evidence or information within Ohio’s airspace.

Rep. Damschroder demonstrates a drone's operation
Rep. Damschroder demonstrates a drone’s operation

Referring to HB 207 as the “Drone Surveillance Freedom Act,” Rep. Damschroder fielded a variety of questions from the committee, which he chairs. Damschroder yielded the gavel to committee vice-chair Margaret Ann Ruhl (R-Mount Vernon) for the duration of the bill’s first hearing.

HB 207, as introduced, would require law enforcement agencies to show probable cause for a search warrant using a drone, a restriction that already applies to more conventional searches

However, the bill does provide exceptions for warrantless data collection by law enforcement drones in extreme, specific cases similar to the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment placed on manual searches.

During testimony, Rep. Damschroder noted that other states have already passed UAV restrictions like those proposed by HB 207. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 43 states are either considering or have passed legislation regulating the usage of drones, including 9 states which have passed laws restricting law enforcement agencies’ usage of such vehicles.

Highlighting the near-unanimous support drone legislation received in Florida and Illinois, Damschroder argued before the committee that “protecting our Fourth Amendment rights is certainly not a partisan issue.”

The Fremont Republican, who is a flight instructor at Fremont’s Progress Field Airport, noted that he had purchased a small commercially-available drone to familiarize himself with some of the specifics of UAV capabilities.

After the hearing, Damschroder told Media Trackers that he felt the Transportation committee was receptive to the issues HB 207 seeks to address.

“I think it went well. It’s a learning process — unfortunately, most people here don’t have much experience with drones,” he said. “It’s a new industry, it’s a new issue — there’s a learning curve on learning what drones are and what they do.”

While Republican committee members Rick Perales (R-Beavercreek) and Ross McGregor (R-Springfield) wondered about the economic impact HB 207 could have on drone manufacturers looking to operate in Ohio, the committee’s Democrat members seemed more interested in the privacy issues the bill is addressing.

“Anything can be abused,” Rep. Dale Mallory (D-Cincinnati) noted during the November 12 hearing, adding that law enforcement agencies in Montgomery County have already begun using remote drones to catch speeding motorists.

Rep. Mallory is a sponsor of House Bill 69, legislation crafted to ban automated traffic cameras throughout the state.

Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland) questioned Damschroder about how drones are currently regulated and tracked in Ohio’s airspace.

Rep. Patmon raised the possibility of government-operated drones presenting a flight risk to airplanes or other drones, describing this as “a troubling issue.” Though Patmon’s concerns are not addressed by HB 207, Damschroder seemed to agree that they were valid and should be explored further in the future.

If a vote on HB 207 is to be scheduled before the full Ohio House, the proposal will need to be approved by the 13-member committee before the legislature adjourns for the year.