OLYMPIA — If a drone aircraft is used for a crime, from running drugs to scoping a house for robbery, prosecutors would be able to seek an extra year in prison for the offenders under a bill now before Washington state lawmakers.
The Senate Law and Justice Committee held a hearing Tuesday morning on Sen. Pam Roach’s proposal to add the allegation of a “nefarious drone enterprise” to Washington criminal law, which she said was an effort to get ahead of the emerging technology of advanced, affordable personal-use unmanned aircraft.
The state currently has no restrictions on the use of drones, although 20 other states have enacted laws on drone-related issues.
“It’s potentially a big tool for people that want to do wrong, and I’d like to let everybody know right away through law, don’t do it,” said Roach, a Republican from Auburn.
Her bill would add a year to the sentencing range that dictates how judges can punish an offense. At least three other bills concerning drones have been filed in the Legislature this session in the wake of Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto of a bill last year that would have restricted how state and local government agencies use the unmanned aircraft.
Efforts to control unmanned flying aircraft become more prominent since a wayward drone crashed on the White House lawn last month. That drone’s manufacturer blocked all flights of its devices in Washington, D.C., where drone use was already illegal.
Also in January, authorities in Tijuana, Mexico, reported the crash of a cartel’s drug-laden drone, and a man in South Carolina was sentenced to 15 years for trying to use a drone to smuggle items into a prison.
Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who focuses on robotics, said much of the scrutiny comes because drones are at the intersection of several broad areas — including privacy rights and the availability of high-tech devices to law enforcement and criminals alike — where the law hasn’t caught up with society’s fears.
“Suddenly because you do something with a drone, it becomes worse or more concerning that if you do it another way,” he said.
He noted that the “nefarious drone enterprise” bill has a very tight technological focus.
“It would be like saying that the crime of assault is different if it’s done with a hammer,” he said.
The bill drew no criticism before a scant audience at its three-minute public hearing Tuesday morning. It faces several legislative hurdles before it could become law, and it’s not clear whether it has enough support to pass.
Roach and committee chairman and bill co-sponsor Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican, discussed potential ways drones could aid crime schemes, including casing a house, spooking a herd of livestock or smuggling.
“There’s a lot of different uses that maybe we haven’t thought of and are out there,” Padden said.
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