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Bill would give stiffer penalties to criminals using drones

Chad Sokol Murrow News Service

OLYMPIA – Convicted felons could get an additional year in prison for using a toy helicopter to commit a crime, under a bill that is buzzing through the Legislature.

Sponsored by Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, the “nefarious drones” bill got a hearing Friday in the House Public Safety Committee after passing the Senate on a 34-15 vote. It’s an effort to get ahead of the emerging technology of affordable, personal-use unmanned aircraft, which could be used for nefarious activities, she said.

Remote-controlled helicopters, typically with four propellers and a camera mounted underneath, have become a popular hobby item in the last several years. But some fear criminals could use drones to spy on homes before breaking in, to smuggle drugs into hard-to-reach destinations or simply to invade people’s privacy.

“We got to come down hard on people who are doing that, to stop them from even thinking about it,” Roach said.

Her bill would require courts to add one year to a person’s prison sentence when they have evidence that a drone was involved in committing a felony. Washington has no restrictions on the use of drones, although the FAA and 20 other states have enacted regulations.

Their concerns are not unprecedented. In January, a drone carrying 6 pounds of methamphetamine crashed just south of the California border with Mexico, a South Carolina man got 15 years behind bars for trying to use a drone to smuggle items into a state prison, and a toy helicopter raised concerns when it landed on the White House lawn.

But Paul Strophy, an attorney with the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told the committee it’s hard to justify longer prison sentences for using drones. People currently can get longer sentences for having a gun or other weapon while committing a felony, and other factors that could make a situation more dangerous.

“A drone in and of itself doesn’t create an additional threat to society like the other sentence enhancements,” Strophy said.

Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill last year that would have restricted how state and local government agencies use unmanned aircraft. Some agencies, like the Department of Fish and Wildlife, have shown interest in using them to regulate hunting and fishing in state parks.

The bill is scheduled move out of the committee next week. It could then get a full vote in the House.

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