Bill prohibiting sex offenders from owning drones passes Arkansas Senate committee

Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, addresses the Senate Judiciary committee at the Arkansas state Capitol on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, addresses the Senate Judiciary committee at the Arkansas state Capitol on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

A bill that would bar certain sex offenders from owning or operating drones for private use passed the Arkansas Senate Committee on Judiciary on Monday.

The Senate panel endorsed House Bill 1125 in a 5-1 roll-call vote after lawmakers raised concerns that the legislation would fail to prevent non-sex offenders from using drones to spy on others and could prevent people who were formerly classified as sex offenders from ever owning drones.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, opposed the bill. Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, did not cast a vote for or against the proposed law.

Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, said he sponsored the bill along with Sen. Ricky Hill, R-Cabot, after constituents told him they had seen a drone repeatedly fly over their backyard. When the drone eventually crashed on their property, the constituents learned it belonged to a Level 3 sex offender.

[DOCUMENT: Read Copy of HB1125 »]

Current law does not prevent sex offenders from owning or flying drones, which Evans said could allow offenders to monitor potential victims.

"What if he was trying [to] figure out when Mom and Dad are not home? What if he was trying to figure out how many teenage girls and young boys are out in [the] backyard playing when Mom and Dad are gone?" he asked committee members.

In Arkansas, sex offenders are classified into four levels. Level 1 is considered low risk, Level 2 is considered moderate risk and Level 3 is considered high risk. A Level 4 sex offender is considered a sexually violent predator.

Under HB1125, Level 3 and Level 4 sex offenders would be prohibited from "purchasing, owning, possessing, using, or operating an unmanned aircraft." The bill defines an unmanned aircraft as any aircraft that may be flown without "direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft." The aircraft must also have the ability to "photographically or electronically record" to qualify.

The proposed law provides an exemption for any sex offenders required to use a drone as part of their employment.

Last week, the bill passed the House Committee on Judiciary and was approved in a 95-1 floor vote in the House.

While Tucker said he agreed the behavior Evans described should be illegal, he was concerned the bill would still allow people who aren't registered as sex offenders to use drones to spy on others.

"I believe it ought to be illegal no matter who does it, whether you're a Level 3 or 4 sex offender or not," he said.

On the other hand, Tucker said the proposed law could keep sex offenders whose offense wasn't related to voyeurism from even owning a drone since it applied to all Level 3 and 4 sex offenders.

"If someone is a Level 3 or 4 sex offender because they were convicted of sexual assault of an adult woman and there was no video involved, that's a horrible crime, but I'm not sure that being able to have a drone or not is really applicable to that person," Tucker said.

The legislation also could bar offenders from participating in legal hobbies including filming sporting events and recording the "natural beauty of Arkansas."

"It's criminalizing a person's ability to do things that are basically fine under our society's standards," Tucker said.

Pointing to a state statute that bans voyeurism, Tucker said Arkansas already had a law that would prohibit people from spying on others without their consent. Tucker noted the law would apply only if those being spied on were nude or partially nude.

"My thought would be to amend the law that criminalizes voyeurism so we're criminalizing the behavior that we want to prevent, spying on people without their knowledge or consent, but then we're not criminalizing behavior that we really don't care about," he said.

While Evans acknowledged the voyeurism statute, he said he believed that people who had committed a crime that led to them being classified as a Level 3 or Level 4 sex offender had relinquished their right to possess a tool that might allow them to re-offend.

Tucker also said he'd like to see the bill include language specifying there is no criminal liability for selling a drone to a sex offender. When writing the bill, Evans said drafters had considered adding a provision to protect drone sellers but decided against it to avoid including any "hint that there would be any type of liability upon who was selling the drone."

Flowers pointed to how the bill would apply to anyone "who has been assessed" as a Level 3 or 4 sex offender and asked if the legislation would affect people who had been assessed as sex offenders and then taken off the sex offender registry sometime later.

Robert Combs of the Central Arkansas ReEntry Coalition testified that while a Level 4 offender remains on the registry for life, a person classified as a Level 3 sex offender may apply for a reassessment to stop registering as an offender after 15 years. Combs noted that after five years an offender may request to be reclassified to a different level.

A violation of the proposed law would be a felony.

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