Hennepin County Sheriff adopts drone use as legal landscape evolves

By Mike Kaszuba

On a chilly Thursday in March, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office invited a group of politicians and others to watch a demonstration flight of the department’s new aerial drone.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said that “the demo was not a test of the [drone’s] operational capabilities, but a simple ‘show and tell.’ “ Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek was among those present at the hour-long demonstration in suburban Brooklyn Park.

Limited use so far

Since that flight, the drone has been used on a limited basis, according to records and other information obtained by St. Paul non-profit Public Record Media (PRM).  According to the sheriff’s office, the limited use of the drone to date is a product of agency policies that govern the operations of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The sheriff’s office appears to have tread lightly into what is an evolving legal area.  Its current drone policy restricts operations to search and rescue missions, and prohibits use for surveillance activities, or for targeting a person based solely on characteristics such as “race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.”  The sheriff’s office added that data collected by the drone that is not related to a criminal investigation is destroyed after 30 days.

No state legislation to date

Hennepin County put its drone into operation during a time when state legislators have discussed – but not yet adopted – legal regulations on police use of drones.   Two state legislators who attended the flight demonstration told PRM that they favored only using the drone for tightly-defined missions such as search and rescue.  Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson – another politician who attended the event – said that he generally felt the same way.

“Because Sheriff Stanek knew I have had questions in the past about privacy issues, he invited me and a couple of legislative leaders to come and hear about the drone [that his office] had purchased and how they intended to use it,” Johnson told PRM via e-mail.

First drone mission

Less than two months after the March demonstration flight, Hennepin County’s drone was deployed on its first search and rescue mission along the Mississippi River, according to flight and maintenance logs obtained by PRM.

In mid-May, law enforcement authorities announced a search for missing University of Minnesota student David Michael Miller near the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.  On the same day, the sheriff’s office’s drone was used for a search and rescue exercise in the same vicinity – along the Mississippi River near the Washington Avenue Bridge – although the flight log does not specifically say whether the drone was used in the search for Miller.

The sheriff’s office has provided only limited information on the drone’s use.  For more than five months after PRM formally asked for records regarding the drone’s demonstration flight, the agency did not confirm that the flight had in fact occurred.

The sheriff’s office, through a spokesman, has since stated that the drone has not had any operational flights since the search mission last May, although it has been used for a handful of training flights.

Proposed regulations

The scope of the missions that law enforcement drones should be allowed to engage in remains a topic of debate in Minnesota.

Legislation proposed by Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) would prohibit police from using drones without a search warrant, unless there was an emergency that posed “a reasonably likely threat” to life and safety, or a high risk of a terrorist attack.  Dibble’s bill also states that police could use a drone if a judge had determined that collecting information with the device might uncover criminal activity, and that alternate means of collecting information were cost prohibitive or presented a risk of bodily injury.

Dibble’s proposal would also limit drones to collecting data “on a clearly and narrowly defined target” and would prohibit any widespread data collection on “individuals, homes or areas other than the defined target.”  The proposed legislation would likewise prohibit police from using facial recognition or other biometric-matching technology on drones without court approval.  The bill, introduced in 2015, has not passed either the Minnesota House or Senate.

Hennepin County’s drone demonstration was witnessed by Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover) who chairs the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, as well as by Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul). Rep. Lesch was the lead DFLer on the committee, and introduced companion legislation in the Minnesota House that mirrored Dibble’s drone proposal.  The sheriff’s office noted that a representative of the Minnesota office of the American Civil Liberties Union also attended the event.

The group watched as the sheriff’s office demonstrated its Inspire I drone, an eight-pound quadcopter that cost roughly $4,000 and – the sheriff’s office emphasized – is a model that can be purchased by the general public.

Both legislators, along with Johnson, told PRM that they favored limits on the use of drones by law enforcement agencies.  “I think they could be a good tool for locating missing persons/abducted children” or for locating assailants, Scott said in an e-mail to PRM.  Scott also noted her support for a warrant requirement for many uses of the devices.  “They should not be used at peaceful public gatherings for common surveillance,” Scott added.  “I believe [the police] should have to have public meetings to let citizens know they are contemplating purchasing/using drones.  The public needs to know,” she noted.

Hennepin County Commissioner Johnson agreed.  Drones, he said, should be used for “aerial surveillance for border security, bomb detection,” or search and rescue for lost children or vulnerable adults.  Johnson added that he believed that “we should prohibit drone use for surveillance of private property [even if in publicly navigable airspace] unless a court order is in place.”

As a legislator, Lesch has also been at the center of the drone debate, authoring a series of proposals over the past two years that attempted to set limits.  “My 2014 bill would restrict the use of drones by governmental entities, generally requiring a search warrant prior to their deployment,” he told PRM in an e-mail.

Another proposal Lesch introduced last year would have required any governmental entity using a drone to annually post on its website the number of times a drone was used, the number of criminal investigations aided by drones, and how often drones were used for something other than criminal investigations.  The proposal would also have required the creation of public information on court-ordered search warrants involving drones, including information on the length of time that drone use had been authorized by a court.

“When it comes to the potential use of drones by law enforcement agencies in Minnesota, we need to proceed very carefully,” Lesch noted.