Linda Lye, attorney for ACLU in Oakland
before Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

ALCO BOARD OF SUPERVISORS | The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department says the placement of an agenda item before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning requesting approval for the purchase of an unmanned aerial craft was an oversight.

The $31,645 expenditure, included as part of a $1.2 million Homeland Security grant package to the county, was included in Tuesday’s regular agenda. However, critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, charged the sheriff was attempted to surreptitiously pass the controversial purchase of a drone under the public’s radar.

Richard Lucia, the undersheriff for Alameda County, however, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning the department has no plans to go forward with the purchase. “We’re not purchasing it–maybe never purchasing it. It was an oversight on our part. We’re not going to buy it until it is fully vetted by the public,” added Lucia. “You have our word on it.”

A day earlier, Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern withdrew a portion of the agenda dealing with the $31,000 expenditure for a drone, but asked to move forward with approving the bulk of the grant, according to Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi. An attorney for the ALCU of Northern California, though, objected to the move and asked the county for an amendment to be included. “The resolution as drafted would leave them with blank check to buy a drone,” said Linda Lye, an attorney for ACLU of Northern California. Although county counsel Donna Ziegler disagreed with the assessment, Supervisor Keith Carson offered specific language essentially blocking any purchase of a drone in the near future.

Discussion of the legality and uses of a potential drone hovering over Alameda County will be kicked down to the county Public Protection Committee. But, regarding its likelihood of passage, Supervisor Nate Miley, noted he is “not sure it will see the light of day.” If the purchase of drone, used primarily for search and rescue operations and other emergencies, according to the Sheriffs Department, does not go through, the grant could be returned to the California Emergency Management Agency or modified for another public safety purpose, said Lucia.

Earlier in the morning, the ACLU of Northern California held a press conference offering details and documentation showing Ahern’s previous comments on the department’s interest in drones, first reported last month, were further along than previously known.

In fact, as earlier as Aug. 7, the sheriff has already received bids from three manufacturers of unmanned aircraft, according to documents, and none close to the roughly $31,000 grant. They include a $49,981 model manufactured by Lockheed Martin and two bids from Canadian firms; Aeryon Labs, Inc, which makes a $67,500 drone and ING Engineering, which offered an $89,500 base model with capabilities for thermal imaging and video zoom, at extra cost. The size of the unmanned aircraft is roughly is four pounds with a four-foot wingspan.

Will Matthews, a spokesman for the ACLU of Northern California says the sheriff is attempting to push through approval of the drone without public discussion of its potential uses and unintended consequences, such as unwanted invasions on the public’s expectation of privacy. “The sheriff is secretly trying to unleash a drone on Alameda County,” Matthews said.

The ACLU believes, as it stands, there is nothing to bind the sheriff dept to safeguard against the potential misuse of drone technology. “They’re saying, ‘trust us, we’ll abide by the Constitution and the laws,’” Lye, an attorney for the ACLU, said before Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. Instead, she added, the ACLU would rather have something in writing beforehand.

Trevor Timm, a free speech advocate for the Electric Frontier Foundation, said drones have legitimate uses when it comes to crowd control and emergency situations, “But it is clear from the internal grant they want it for surveillance,” Timm said. “We don’t want people to go outside their home having people spy on them.”