BISMARCK - The North Dakota House voted against a bill that would have barred law enforcement from using nonlethal weapons on drones Tuesday, but officials say they have no intent to weaponize drones.
House Bill 1167 would have amended the state's current laws on unmanned aircraft systems to prohibit lethal and nonlethal weapons from being attached to drones. The current law, passed in 2015, requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using drones for surveillance. It also disallowed the use of lethal weapons on the drones.
The law's author, Rep. Chris C. Becker, R-Bismarck, said Tuesday his original intent was to prohibit all weapons on drones, but the 2015 law was amended before it passed to allow nonlethal weapons.
Becker also authored House Bill 1167 and argued for its passage Tuesday.
"My concern is that when we allow drones to deploy a weapon, we take out the humanity," Becker said. "We take out that decision-making from the boots on the ground. Again, the bill in no way hinders the use of drones by law enforcement for any number of circumstances."
Rep. Andy Maragos, R-Minot, said members of the North Dakota Peace Officers Association spoke against the bill, citing liability concerns.
Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said the bill was unnecessary because law enforcement agencies are not planning to put weapons on the drone, but he also said he didn't want a law that would "tie their hands."
"I appreciate the bill sponsor's intent, but there's no need for it, and there's no need to further poke a stick in the eye of our law enforcement officials," Koppelman said.
Becker took umbrage with the comment.
"That's just a most unfortunate way of looking at it," Becker said. "Our job as legislators is to make good law. Sometimes that rubs a bit against law enforcement; that's OK. Their job is to protect the citizenry and ensure security. Those jobs are not identical. We are going to have a little bit of friction on some occurrences."
Koppelman also referenced reaction to the bill's passage in 2015. North Dakota was the first state to make any sort of law about law enforcement's use of drones, and many criticized the state for not barring all weaponization.
He said the backlash the state received in 2015 was unfair, but by voting against the bill, the Legislature was endorsing weaponizing drones for law enforcement.
"The reason that this bill addresses things is to try to make sure that the way we're doing things is done properly," he said. "Nope, this doesn't address private use of weapons, but there is an abundance of laws that cover that already."
No plans to weaponize
The Grand Forks Sheriff's Office controlled the only unmanned aircraft system unit in the state for a long time and repeatedly has said it will not weaponize drones. The Bismarck Tribune reported the Burleigh County Sheriff's Office acquired a drone in October, becoming the second state agency to do so.
Lt. BJ Maxson of the Grand Forks Sheriff's Office said the sheriff's office has no intention of using the drones for anything beyond surveillance.
"We would not put any weapons on the UAS," Maxson said.
The Grand Forks UAS squad is controlled by the sheriff's office, but includes officers from the Grand Forks Police Department, the UND Police Department and the Cass County Sheriff's Office, Maxson said. There are 10 members of the UAS squad, which frequently is sent to assist other agencies in the state.
The UAS was deployed to Cannon Ball, N.D., to conduct surveillance at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest this fall.
"Grand Forks is the epicenter for drones, I think we all agree on that," Becker said.
He referenced a Forum News Service article from 2015 in which Sheriff Bob Rost and Police Chief Mark Nelson both said they wouldn't weaponize drones.
Becker said that in testimony from a lobbyist from the North Dakota Peace Officers Association, the representative did not object to the addition of the nonlethal language.
House Bill 1167 failed 56 to 36. Two representatives were absent.