In a Friday editorial about the recent session of the Washington Legislature, the Yakima Herald-Republic detailed a long list of tasks that the lawmakers did not get done. They did take one action that needs to be undone by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2789 — the vote was 77-21 in the House and 46-1 in the Senate — which is an attempt to regulate the use of drones by law enforcement and regulatory agencies at both the state and local levels. Section 1 of the measure reads: “It is the intent of the Legislature to provide clear standards for the lawful use of extraordinary surveillance technologies by state and local jurisdictions.”
Clarity may be the stated intent, but the bill does just the opposite.
The bill contains conflicting language about records and video from drone flights that would be available to the media and the public. One sentence appears to skirt public records laws, then later language seems to contradict it. The bill severely limits media access to videos taken from a drone; the same film that would be available if taken from a helicopter, airplane or on the ground would be inaccessible if taken from a drone. In some cases, video could be destroyed within 10 days. The video also could not be used in court.
The bill would prevent disclosure of “personal information” that “describes, locates or indexes anything about a person.” That sweeping language could put massive amounts of data off-limits to the public.
If the bill becomes law, state or local agencies would not be able to use drones to enforce pollution laws, or for tasks such as forest and agriculture management, where drones show great promise at covering a wide range of ground at relatively little taxpayer cost. The bill doesn’t address use by the private sector, which is also capable of abuse and overreach.
Civil libertarians on the left and right have pushed for limits on drone use by public agencies, and they are right about the need for a state law that curbs potential government abuses and protects the privacy of citizens. But this bill doesn’t get it done.
The bill has raised concern among a wide range of constituencies, including law enforcement, prosecutors, trial lawyers, state agencies, media interests and Boeing — lest we forget, Boeing manufactures drones through its Insitu subsidiary in Klickitat County.
The bill also should raise concern among the public. It was sent to Inslee in the week before Sunshine Week, which annually deals with the need for open government, especially the public’s access to government records. This bill violates the intent of laws, initially put into place by voter initiative, that assure transparency and public access to government records.
Inslee should heed these concerns and veto the bill. The Legislature then could assemble a group consisting of lawmakers, law enforcement, the legal community, the business community and media representatives, and try again next year. With the benefit of hindsight and the time afforded by a full legislative session, lawmakers could craft legislation that strikes the right balance between public access and privacy rights.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.