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Is "Reasonable Suspicion" Enough for Police to Use Surveillance Drones?

Flickr Creative Commons / Don McCullough

Once again, state lawmakers are considering if police should be allowed to conduct surveillance using remote controlled aerial vehicles, commonly known as "drones."

The law would require police to register drones and create publicly-available information about their use. It would also, in some cases, call for them to get a warrant before using a drone. 

In question is another section of the bill, which would allow police to use a drone without a warrant if there was "reasonable suspicion" something illegal was happening on private property.

Both the Office of the Chief Public Defender and the ACLU of Connecticut have opposed that and questioned whether such evidence would be admissible in court.

"It won't help the police; it will promote sloppy police work," said Elisa Villa, president of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. "The police do have -- and are very good at what they do, in terms of investigations -- but there needs to be judicial oversight."

Anthony Salvatore represents the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. "We do have judicial oversight. Our judicial oversight is our state's attorney's offices, who we report to," he said. "Even though we would have reasonable suspicion to fly a drone under this proposal, we would still have develop probable cause to request an arrest warrant or a search warrant if we wish to go further."

Both Salvatore and the ACLU said no police departments in Connecticut are currently using drones for surveillance. But if the law passes, and does open the door to police use, it would bar police from using any drones equipped with weapons, tear gas, or mace. 

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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