By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The home of Mr. Jefferson’s university is aiming to become the front line in a brewing battle over government’s use of aerial drones.
The Charlottesville City Council plans to vote on a resolution restricting the use of the high-tech flying spies.
The resolution, drafted by the civil-libertarian Rutherford Institute, falls short of declaring the city a “no-fly zone.” Instead, the measure would:
- Prohibit information obtained by drones from being introduced in federal or state court.
- Bar the domestic use of drones equipped with anti-personnel devices — also known as weapons.
John Whitehead, president of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, said concerns over drones are neither idle nor hypothetical.
The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act signed into law by President Obama last year cleared the way for widespread use of domestic drones beginning in 2015.
FAA officials predict that at least 30,000 drones will occupy U.S. airspace by 2020.
“Drones are the cornerstone of (Obama’s) administration,” Whitehead told Watchdog.org. “Fifty-six federal agencies already have (domestic drone) licenses.”
Virginia has several designated launch sites, according to FAA records. They include Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, a U.S. Marine Corps facility north of Fredericksburg and the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency in Arlington.
Dave Norris, a Charlottesville councilman, joined two of his colleagues this week in supporting the Rutherford restrictions. The five-member council — all Democrats — directed city staff to bring an anti-drone resolution up for a vote in February.
“We value civil liberties, and there’s concern about (drones) because there aren’t many safeguards in place,” Norris said.
The American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in nationally, declaring that “drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.”
But Whitehead said the ACLU’S “recommendations” don’t go nearly far enough.
“A warrant requirement won’t work because drones bypass that. Their cameras can see faces from 500 feet. Their infrared technology sees through walls, making warrants useless,” he said.
Whitehead argues that “the technology has gone beyond the people who wrote our (constitutional) rights in 1789.”
“If the government had drones in the 1960s, there would have been no civil-rights movement,” he said.
Charlottesville — home of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 — has taken a dim view of Big Brother lately. The council rejected a proposal to install electronic surveillance in a downtown mall, and rebuffed efforts to place photo-enforcement cameras at city intersections.
Whitehead, an attorney, said drones, if unchecked, will take surveillance to a whole new level.
“These drones, some of which are deceptively small and capable of videotaping the facial expressions of people on the ground from hundreds of feet in the air, will usher in a new age of surveillance in American society,” he said.
“There will be no place to run.”
In addition to their eye-in-the-sky technology, manufacturers in what is projected to be a $30-billion industry say drones can pack automatic weapons, grenade launchers, tear gas and Tasers.
“The fact that pilotless, remote-controlled aircraft — which have been used extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to assassinate suspected terrorist — are coming home to domestic airspace should come as no surprise to those who have been paying attention,” Whitehead said.
“The U.S. government has a history of commandeering military technology for use against Americans. Tear gas, Tasers, sound cannons and assault vehicles all were first used on the battlefield before being deployed against civilians at home.”
State Sen. Tom Garrett, a Virginia lawyer in Louisa County, said state officials “need to be mindful of the constitutional issues of search and seizure” posed by drones.
“I don’t think founders envisioned rights eroding with technology,” the Republican lawmaker said.
Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, has introduced legislation requiring approval of the General Assembly or a local government body before any agency could purchase drones.
The bill, along with a companion measure by Sen. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, is supported by the Virginia Tea Party Federation, the state chapter of the ACLU and the Virginia Farm Bureau.
The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the restrictions.
Previously, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Department of Homeland Security seeking information on why the agency has loaned Predator drones to law-enforcement agencies around the country. In one instance, North Dakota authorities borrowed an Air Force drone to track suspected cattle rustlers.
EFF has also called on the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review the use of surveillance drones.
But the Washington Times reported that the presidentially appointed panel has met only once in five years. Obama took nearly four years to name members to the board.
Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward
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