[…] Barry Summers, a radio co-host in Asheville, went to a legislative candidate forum in Buncombe County in August to talk to House Speaker Thom Tillis about the sweeping drone legislation that the state General Assembly had passed just weeks earlier.
Summers wanted to know how legislative leaders tucked such important legislation into North Carolina’s $21 billion spending bill.
Susan L. Sitze, a staff attorney at the General Assembly’s Research Division, confirmed last week that the legislation would allow such a scenario – or one in which, say, a person may hold an open-invitation backyard barbecue.
“If the event, be it BBQ or Tea Party event, is open to the general public, i.e., anyone can attend, then law enforcement can use a drone to observe the event and take photos without a warrant,” Sitze said in an email, responding to a state lawmaker seeking clarification of the law.
At the end of the candidate forum, Summers, a self-described progressive, walked up to Tillis, the Mecklenburg Republican who is running for a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan. Summers put a recording device in front of Tillis, making it clear that the conversation was on the record, and started asking questions:
“Can you tell me specifically who was responsible for putting the drone legislation in that (budget) bill?” Summers asked, according to the recording.
Responding, Tills seemed unaware of how the drone legislation made it into the budget, referring generally to final budget negotiations, known as the conference, but stopping short of identifying any legislative leaders who may have lobbied for the drone legislation’s inclusion.
“That legislation – I honestly can’t tell you in the conference if it was a proposal out of the Senate or the House,” Tillis said in the recording.
The Winston-Salem Journal asked about the drone legislation and its inclusion in the spending bill through emails. Tillis did not respond after several weeks.
According to Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and key sponsor of the drone legislation, the GOP caucus was “well informed” about the legislation.
“I sought to include the language into the budget bill after Senate colleagues showed interest in its passing,” Torbett said in an email to Summers recently.
During the recorded exchange with Summers, Tillis also said, “I think what you’ll see in there – a lot of it had to do with trying to have some protections for privacy but also recognizing agriculture industry and others, other industries, have a productive, safe use for it. Our main concern with … any kind of use with drones, have to deal with personal privacy.”
As Tillis finished the comment, Summers asked a second question. This time, Summers wanted to know why the drone legislation was not the subject of debate: “Well, given that this particular bill had very large exceptions for law enforcement to conduct surveillance without a warrant, wouldn’t it be more appropriate that it go all the way through the process? It didn’t have a single hearing in the Senate, correct? And no one’s taking credit for having putting it in the budget.”
Responding, Tillis said: “I would defer to my Senate colleagues on their process, but I think if you go back and take a look at the proceedings – the whole reason we put it together is we thought it was something that was serious we need to look at it.
“I would tell you that the surveillance provisions – and a lot of it also had to do with search and rescue – there are a number of legitimate uses for public safety. There are also potential abuses. And I will guarantee you this legislature, more than any, would come down hard on law enforcement if we saw that it was really something being used for a warrantless search.”
Later, Summers brought up again the exceptions for law enforcement: “So, for example, if the Tea Party decides to have a fundraiser at a shooting range – if they announce it on their Facebook page, they’ve invited the police to come in and conduct surveillance.”
As the three-minute conversation came to a close, as a Tillis aide stepped in, Tillis said: “If you’d like to get information on that – I’m not sure that that’s the case,” referring to the event as one that would be likely considered a “private gathering.”
As it turns out, Sitze, the legislative staff attorney, not only confirmed that the open-invitation backyard barbecue and Tea Party scenarios would be open to warrantless drone surveillance, but also that the drone legislation does not define “public event.”
And that’s part of the problem, according to Sarah Preston, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Because the legislation does not clearly define “private gathering” or “general public,” it is too broad and could be abused.
No questions asked
On June 25, it took no more than three minutes for a drone bill to clear a final vote in the House.
Torbett, a key sponsor of House bill 1099, rose to speak on behalf of the bill, referring to the Wright brothers.
“Imagine yourself on the beaches of North Carolina in 1903. You’re standing there. You see a couple of guys not from North Carolina. They have this contraption, and you’re saying what in the world is this thing. … And then you see it take flight and you’re a witness to what we know now as modern aviation.
“Here we are 111 years later.
“We’re on the verge of the next generation of aviation,” he said.
He did not bring up the exceptions for law enforcement.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans asked a single question. In the second hour of a four-hour session, the drone legislation passed unanimously with bipartisan support, 113-0.
Asked later about the exception allowing warrantless drone surveillance at open-invitation gatherings, even on private property, Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, seemed unaware that the legislation contained such an allowance.
“That’s a problem,” she said recently in an interview, referring to the erosion of a person’s right to privacy.
House bill 1099 may have gotten wide support for a numbers of reasons, said Rep. Ed Hanes, a Winston-Salem Democrat who also voted for it though he opposes the backyard barbecue scenario. Many members, he said, were under the impression that legislative leaders had worked out key concerns about privacy rights.
“We wanted to balance the right to privacy without putting up a barrier to this potential impact that (drones) can have on the state’s economy,” Hanes said.
In the end, the final version of the drone legislation ultimately cleared both houses of the General Assembly with GOP votes.
House bill 1099 died in the Senate.
The wording appeared in August, in the transportation section of the $21 billion spending bill, or Senate bill 744, which contained such items as spending on education, Medicaid and roads, for example.
So the final vote was really on the budget, not the drone legislation. As a result, Democrats such as Harrison and Hanes, who voted against the spending bill, voted against the drone legislation.
All House members received a bullet-point memo highlighting the items in the transportation section of the budget, Torbett said.
On the third page of the memo, the final bullet point offered one sentence about the drone legislation: “Establishes a regulatory framework for the commercial operation of unmanned aircraft, including training and licensing through the NCDOT Division of Aviation.”