Illinois would sharply limit police use of unmanned aircraft, or drones, under a bill sponsored by State Sen. Daniel Biss.

SB 1587, the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act, would generally require police agencies to obtain a search warrant for the use of a drone — except when using one to locate a missing person or for crime-scene photography.

But the bill was amended last month to delete a provision that would bar law enforcement agencies from owning or using a drone “equipped with any kind of lethal or non-lethal weapon.”

Biss told a town hall meeting last week that he would have preferred to keep the weapons ban in the bill, but that it appeared the bill would have been doomed to defeat with that provision in it.

State Sen. Daniel Biss at the town hall forum in Evanston.

“You have to understand the difference between Planet Earth and Planet Springfield,” Biss said.

“On Planet Earth,” Biss said, “I heard from two kinds of people — people who congratulated me for the bill, and people who think it’s not restrictive enough.”

But in Springfield, he said, “it was basically me and the ACLU on one side and five-trillion law enforcement agencies on the other side who had a whole series of objections.”

So he said his goal has become to make the issue a simple discussion about privacy, that people shouldn’t be surveilled by drones from law enforcement unless officials have a warrant showing probably cause.

“That’s a fight we have a prayer of winning,” Biss said, “although we haven’t won it yet.”

The new version of the bill would set up a committee to research weaponization and other issues involving drones.

Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington says he’s had discussions with the Evanston Peace and Justice Coalition about drones.

Police Chief Richard Eddington.

He says the group has been quite concerned about the impact on civil liberties of any new surveillance technology.

And he said, “We agree on many more things than we disagree about.”

But he said drones could be very helpful in some situations — like a search and rescue incident.

“If we’ve got a report of a swimmer in the lake in trouble, we could probably cover Howard Street to Wilmette harbor in 15 minutes with this type of technology,” the chief said.

“Especially if you add on infrared camera technology,” he said it would make it much easier to see if anybody is in the water at night.

“Now you get a bunch of fire and police officers standing on the lakefront looking out into the dark water and saying, ‘I’m not seeing anything, what are you seeing?’”

“Just the ability for search and rescue would be extremely attractive to public safety professionals,” he added.

One concern with the latest version of the drone bill in Springfield, Eddington said, is that it would require to police inform targets that they’d been under drone surveillance within 45 days.

He said Evanston police have recently been involed in several investigations with federal agencies that ran a year-and-a-half or longer. “You don’t want to be telling the bad guy 45 days into such an investigation that you’ve been looking at him,” he said. “This is not like NCIS where everything is wrapped up in an hour.”

But the chief said no vendors have approached him to talk about having the city acquire drones, and “I’m not the guy who has to have the newest toy on the block.”

“I’d prefer to have other agencies do the leg work, get the bugs out, and then we can decide whether it’s useful.”

Readers voting in an Evanston Now online poll in February opposed police use of drones by a roughly 2-1 margin.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Senator Biss and the anti-drone bill

    Kudos to Senator Biss for introducing the Droneanti-surveillance bill. As a member of St. Nick's Parish Peace and Justice Coalition, I would wish that the sentence banning weapons could be stored, but half a loaf is better than none.

  2. Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance

    THe rapid implementaion of drone technology throughout the U.S. poses a serious threat to the privacy and constitutional rights of people in this country. THe Federal government and most state legislatures have yet to provide reasonable legal restrictions on the use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) within the U.S.

    Until Congress acts to do so, states and local governments need to pass legislation, ordinances or resolutions which will serve to protect our privacy from the enormously invasive potential of domestic drone surveillance. 

    Senate bill #1587 introduced recently by Sen.Dan Biss is a good first step in the right direction. 

  3. Biss misses the mark

    I had a big problem when Obama's U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder could not say definitively if drones could be used to kill non-combatant Americans. Rand Paul then bravely began his infamous filibuster to get Holder to admit that it's unconstitutional. Do police have to get a warrant to surveil people from helicopters or undercover agents? I don't think so. So why can't police use drones to assist in their undercover operations? Once again, Biss misses the mark.

    1. Al misses the mark

      "Do police have to get a warrant to surveil people from helicopters or undercover agents? "

      The Fourth Amendment question here is what is an 'unreasonable search', and when do you have a 'reasonable' expectation of privacy.

      If you are doing something in your back yard, or outside, that can be seen from a helicopter with a naked eye….then the courts have ruled that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

      As for undercover agents,  courts have ruled that when people are engaged in  illegal commercial activity with others (like dealing drugs or smuggling weapons), they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

      This is completely different than a mosquito-sized drone flying into your backyard and spying on you…

  4. Drone legislation

    Senator Biss has it right. Drones have no place in an open society. They have the potential for tremendous harm, including invasions of privacy. The hypotheticals given in support don't outweigh the harm.

    1. Should drones be used to secure our borders?

      Susan, you're an immigration attorney. I bet you don't approve of drones being used to patrol our open borders.

  5. Are you up to no good?

    Do you remember all the contraversy when the police installed cameras on light post and the CTA installed cameras at "L" stations?  And since then banks, stores,  schools and many other establlshments (including bars-remember the Chicago police officer who lost his job for beating up the Polish girl bartender?

    Bring on the drones!  They will only help keep us safer by exposing those who are doing criminal activity! 

    You have no right to privacy when you are oiut in public, because you are in an open society!

    1. Do you have a right to privacy in your own home or back yard?

      Surveillance drones can hover and peek and they're getting smaller and smaller.  Think hard before you support even more curtailing of our Bill of Rights freedoms.

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