BISMARCK, N.D. — A law that caused a stir two years ago when it left an option for North Dakota law enforcement to outfit drones with nonlethal weapons is back under the microscope.
A bill has been introduced in the North Dakota Legislature to change the law and add nonlethal and less-than-lethal weapons to a list of items that law enforcement cannot use in tandem with an unmanned aircraft. Nonlethal weapons include items such as Tasers or pepper spray dispensers.
The law attracted national attention during the prior legislative session when its final version left the option open.
Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, is the main sponsor of HB 1167. He told the Bismarck Tribune that his intentions this year are to close the door on the possibility of arming drones with any type of weapon. Becker added law enforcement officers in the state say they don’t have interest in weaponizing drones either — a stance some officials have held for years.
Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost and Grand Forks Police Chief Mike Nelson both told the Grand Forks Herald in 2015 that multi-agency unmanned aircraft unit they oversee has no plans for outfitting its drones with weapons.
“State law is so wide open that you can, but we’re not going to,” Rost said in 2015. “And we wouldn’t even think of it.”
The Northeast Region UAS Unit includes officers from Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department, Grand Forks Police Department, the University of North Dakota Police Department and other regional agencies. The unit has authorization to fly nationwide, but other agencies in the state have purchased drones of their own.
The Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department is one example. Pat Heinert, Burleigh County sheriff and a state representative, told the Tribune his department has used the aircraft for crime and traffic accident scene documentation.
Heinert noted he is hesitant to remove the option for nonlethal weapons from the law.
House Bill 1167 also creates a new section in the state’s Century Code to allow civil recourse for those who believe a drone has been used in an unlawful manner against them. If passed by the Legislature, the section would read:
Civil remedies for violations.
The civil remedy of injunction is available to an interested person to restrain and enjoin
violations of any provision of this chapter. Any person violating any provision of this chapter is
liable to a person injured by such violation for all damages directly or indirectly suffered thereby.
No hearing date has been scheduled for the bill. The law it affects was created in 2015, the result of a bill also authored by Becker. The bulk of that statute focuses on governing the use of drones by law officers, including the stipulation that agencies get warrants before conducting surveillance with the devices.