Tennessee House Bill 1456 (HB1456) sponsored by Rep. David Byrd and South Carolina House Bill 4425 (H.4425) sponsored by Rep. Wendell G. Gilliard (D-Charleston), would both ban the use of weaponized drones by persons within the state. That certainly counts as a good thing. But both pieces of legislation specifically exempt state and local law enforcement from the prohibition on deploying weaponized drones. That leaves the door open for police in both states to arm unmanned aerial vehicles with both lethal and non-lethal weapons.
The Tennessee legislature passed legislation banning warrantless drone surveillance in 2013, but the law does not ban weaponized drones. South Carolina has no law governing law enforcement use of drones at all.
Many states currently lack laws prohibiting armed drones, so passage of H.4425 and HB1456 wouldn’t make Tennessee and South Carolina unique. But tacitly approving law enforcement use of weaponized drones by exempting cops from a general prohibition would likely be interpreted as a green light to arm up.
We saw this scenario play out earlier this year in North Dakota. The state legislature passed a bill that drastically limited law enforcement use of drones, requiring a warrant in most cases. The original bill introduced by Rep. Rick Becker banned all weaponized drones. But a police lobbyist named Bruce Burkett managed to push through an amendment in committee making the prohibition apply only to lethal weapons. That means “less than lethal” weapons like rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, sound cannons, and Tasers now permitted on police drones.
Becker was opposed to the amendment, and testified against it during a committee hearing.
“In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: drones should not be weaponized. Period.”
Immediately after the bill became law, media began reporting that North Dakota had “legalized weaponized drones.”