North Dakota becomes first state to legalize weaponized police drones

A North Dakota law allows police to outfit drones with 'less-than-lethal' weapons including stun guns and tear gas. The bill's original sponsor says he didn't want weapons of any kind on drones, but that the state law enforcement lobby altered the bill's language.

Noah Berger/AP
A North Dakota law allows police to outfit drones with "less-than-lethal" weapons. Here, Sgt. Jim Linn holds the unarmed Alameda County Sheriff's Office drone during a simulated search and rescue on August 14, 2015.

A new law passed this week made North Dakota the first state in the US to allow state and local police drones to carry weapons.

House Bill 1328 explicitly forbids lethal weapons aboard police drones, but allows stun guns, beanbag rounds, tear gas, and other “less-than-lethal” weapons to be fitted onto unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The bill’s sponsor originally included language banning police drones from carrying any kind of weapon, but that language was removed at the behest of a representative from the North Dakota Peace Officer’s Association, the state’s law enforcement lobby, before it passed.

The bill’s original sponsor, Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck), said at a hearing in March that he was worried about police using drones to fire remotely on suspected criminals.

“When you’re not on the ground, and you’re making decisions, you’re sort of separate,” he said at the time. Supporters of the current measure say that police drones are generally only used to photograph crime scenes, assist in missing-person searches, and perform other non-criminal duties, and that the less-than-lethal weapons carried by the drones would only be employed in extraordinary circumstances.

North Dakota is a major center for drone research and development. The state hosts the only drone testing site approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct flights during the day and at night, and the North Dakota Air National Guard unit controls several MQ-1 Predator drones, according to Ars Technica. The University of North Dakota also offers a degree in “Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” The director of that program testified against the original language in the bill that would have prohibited weapons on drones, according to Engadget.

The legislation does require police and sheriff’s deputies to obtain a search warrant from a judge before they can use UAVs for surveillance. Police must also retain records on where drones fly, for how long, and for what purpose.

Rep. Becker told Ars Technica that although the law gives North Dakota law enforcement agencies the power to outfit their drones with less-than-lethal weapons, he didn’t know of any that were planning to do so. He also said that he plans to introduce a new bill in 2017 specifically banning police drones from carrying any kind of weapons, including Tasers and other non-lethal weapons.

Police across the country have used unarmed UAVs in the past year to help monitor protests and perform surveillance duties. Police departments flew drones last summer over riots that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

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