By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- A new Idaho law that takes effect July 1 aims to prevent people from using drones to spy on farmers and ranchers.
A bill that has been signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter restricts people from using drones to spy on anyone but was crafted specifically with agriculture in mind, said its sponsor, Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise.
It's meant "to protect the agricultural community from unreasonable searches," said the Idaho Senate's assistant majority leader.
The bill was widely supported by the state's farming community, which sees increased drone use as inevitable but wants to ensure unmanned aerial vehicles aren't used against them for nefarious purposes.
"We want to make sure the private property of farming operations is protected and this piece of legislation does that," said Food Producers of Idaho president Roger Batt. Drones can do a lot of good, he added, "but it's also nice to know farming operations are protected."
The new law prevents any person, entity or state agency from using a drone to conduct surveillance or observation of private property "without reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal conduct."
The bill allows individuals to use drones to take pictures or video of their own property, which is important for the growing number of farmers who want to use that tool to improve their operations, said north Idaho farmer Robert Blair.
Blair, who uses a drone aircraft to take high-resolution images of his crops, in 2006 became the first farmer in the country to own and use a drone aircraft.
Farmers like him are exempted from the new law because "I'm flying over my own land. Pardon the pun, I'm under the radar," he said.
Former Idaho Attorney General Dave Leroy agreed with a policy expert from the American Civil Liberties Union that the Idaho law doesn't clearly state that it applies to federal agencies.
Even if it did, it could be struck down by a judge on the grounds of federal pre-emption, a doctrine upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court that state laws are invalid when they conflict with federal laws, said ACLU Policy Strategist Allie Bohm.
If it is tested in court on that issue, "it would be interesting to see what a court says," Bohm said.
Winder said that while Bohm is correct on the pre-emption issue, "We are hopeful, however, that it does provide some protection of Idaho citizens from unlawful search by all levels of law enforcement, as guaranteed by the U.S. and Idaho constitutions."
The bill's passage took on added meaning in early April when one of the nation's largest animal rights groups, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, announced it would use drones to spy on hunters and farmers.
In an April 8 news release, the group said it intended "to fly the drones over factory farms ... and other venues where animals routinely suffer and die."