The Washington Post

Drone fears unite conservative Va. delegate, ACLU

Virginia has drones to thank for a new political odd couple: Del. Todd C. Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), one of the most conservative members of the Virginia House, and the ACLU of Virginia.

Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) speaks on the floor of the House in February. (Steve Helber/AP)

Gilbert and the ACLU have more often butted heads — most recently over a Gilbert-sponsored bill allowing state-funded private adoption agencies to turn away prospective parents if they objected to their sexual orientation or religion. Gilbert promoted the “conscience clause,” which became law this year, as a win for religious liberty. The ACLU saw it as anti-gay bigotry.

But there they were, issuing a joint news release Thursday.

“Both the ACLU and I believe, as do many Virginians across the political spectrum, that the use of drones by police and other government agencies should be strictly controlled by state laws that protect the privacy and civil rights of all Virginia residents,” Gilbert said in the release. “I will be introducing legislation in the 2013 General Assembly Session to i) prohibit the use of drones by law enforcement unless a warrant has been issued; ii) require that policies and procedures for the use of drones be adopted by legislative bodies in open meetings; iii) provide for public monitoring and accountability; and iv) mandate that pictures of individuals acquired by drones be destroyed unless they are part of an authorized investigation.”

So when was the last time Gilbert and the civil rights group were on the same page? Claire Gastanaga, the ACLU’s executive director, laughed out loud at the question.

“Todd and I are friends,” she said. “We don’t always see completely eye to eye on things, but on this we are in absolute perfect harmony.”

The civil rights group typically finds more allies on the left when it comes to issues of personal liberty, but it can find common ground with conservatives on matters of government intrusion.

“We probably agree on more things than you would think, but this is our first foray into legislation together,” Gilbert said. “I think on an issue like this, you’re going to see the ACLU and Tea Party conservatives in lockstep. Civil rights and civil liberties cross preconceived notions of ideological boundaries.”

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) took flak from both the left and right when he gave police drones his off-the-cuff endorsement on a call-in radio show in May. Deploying the craft normally used in overseas wars for stateside law enforcement purposes would be “great,” McDonnell said in response to a caller’s question, and “absolutely the right thing to do.”

His comments seemed to put McDonnell in line with the police chiefs of Fairfax County and the District, who had endorsed the idea of deploying drones for such things as traffic control and surveillance. McDonnell’s office later stressed that there were no immediate plans to put drones into the hands of police.

“It was an unguarded moment,” Gilbert said, “but I don’t think the governor would disagree with the notion of any use [of drones] by law enforcement being consistent with Constitutional principles.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.



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