Legislature Keeps Police Chase Liability; Drone Privacy Proposal Heard


February 26th, 2016

en. John Kuehn discusses his drone/privacy bill (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Sen. John Kuehn discusses his drone/privacy bill (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Nebraska Legislature on Thursday rejected an effort to let cities and counties off the hook financially if certain people are injured in police chases. And lawmakers considered a proposal dealing with drones and privacy in a public hearing.


If Sen. Dan Watermeier had his way, Nebraska would change the way it handles financial responsibility for some people who are injured when police chase a vehicle. Currently, those people are considered what the law calls “innocent third parties” if they are a passenger in the car, unless they encourage the driver to flee.

In 2012, the Nebraska Supreme Court decided that applied even in the case of a passenger later found to be in possession of methamphetamine, a felony. When the driver lost control after reaching speeds of over 100 miles an hour on a gravel road in Platte County, the passenger was crippled. The Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, or NIRMA, a self-insurance pool for Nebraska counties, wound up paying $1 million.

Watermeier said he wanted to change that, and reading from a legal memo, described what he’d like to see: “A passenger who has engaged in conduct chargeable as or amounting to a felony while in, or immediately prior to entry into the fleeing vehicle, is not automatically entitled to recovery of damages from the taxpayers, and thus must prove negligence in order to recover damages,” he said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, who got the law holding police departments strictly liable passed 35 years ago, filibustered against Watermeier’s bill. Chambers, a law school graduate but not a lawyer, pressed Watermeier, a farmer and businessman, on where his proposed changes came from.

“Sen. Watermeier, who wrote that information for you that you just read to us about the burden of proof?” Chambers asked.

“You want to know who wrote each word, word by word? I wrote some, my staff wrote some, and the individuals I’ve been consulting with,” Watermeier replied.

“Which means the lobby. The lobby is the one that initiated that, isn’t it true?” Chambers asked?

” I initiated it because I asked for it,” Watermeier replied.

“Members of the Legislature, you see how evasive he is? We know the lobby did it. Why cannot he just admit it?” Chambers asked, rhetorically.

Watermeier, who is not a lawyer, freely acknowledged he was consulting with lobbyists including those for the counties and NIRMA on the language.

With Chambers promising to tie up the Legislature on the final round of debate, senators had to decide whether to end his filibuster and advance Watermeier’s bill. They voted 31-9 to do that. But that was two short of the 33 votes needed to end the filibuster, killing the bill for this year.

Thursday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a proposal by Sen. John Kuehn regarding the use of unmanned aircraft, or drones.

Kuehn’s bill would make drone operators liable for invasion of privacy. That liability would occur if they took pictures or recordings over private property without the property owner’s permission from lower than 200 feet off the ground.

Kuehn described his bill as a “first bite at the apple,” saying he wanted to start a conversation on the subject. “We’re certainly in a brave new world here with drone technology. Drone technology is accelerating much faster than our legal ability to regulate it or to even in many cases understand the legal implications of the expansion of that technology,” Kuehn said.

Adam Houston, a University of Nebraska associate professor in earth and atmospheric sciences and co-director of a group that uses drones to study thunderstorms, opposed the bill. Houston said he understands privacy concerns, but is worried about legislative overreach.

“Is there the possibility that we unintentionally capture images of private citizens and of their property? Yes. And I think that’s where we run the risk of being held liable,” Houston said. “Unfortunately it’s not possible for us to request permission ahead of time. We are operating on thunderstorms and we don’t know ahead of time where they form. Moreover, thunderstorms don’t care if they’re over public or private property so there’s a good chance we’ll be flying over private property.”

Currently, commercial use of drones is prohibited, pending regulations expected soon from the Federal Aviation Administration. Several groups that are potentially interested in using drones, including media organizations and the insurance industry, testified neutral on the bill. Kuehn said he wants to talk more about the issue and introduce a new bill next year.


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