Senate Judiciary considers aerial drones, advances five bills

By Matt Young, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Senate Judiciary Committee, on Thursday, advanced five pieces of legislation, including the “Motorsports Responsibility Act,” and the creation of requirements regarding aerial drones. 

First on the committee’s agenda was consideration of HB 3448. 

As explained by Senate Counsel Hank Hager, “The purpose of the bill is to allow the Supreme Court’s Division of Probation Services to hire people to conduct field training for probation officers, current and trainees, and to give the Field Training Officer the same powers as a Probation Officer while performing his or her duties.”

With no questions asked or discussion raised, HB 3448 was approved by the committee and reported to the full Senate with a recommendation of passage. 

Next before the committee was HB 2569 – establishing the “Motorsports Responsibility Act,”

As explained by Senate Minority Counsel Mindy Parsley, “The bill identifies the purpose of the (Motorsports Responsibility) Act, recognizing that motorsports services contribute significantly to West Virginia’s economy, but pose inherent risks for participants.”

Parsley noted that the bill outlines the responsibilities associated with the operation of a motorsports vehicle, adding that the operator of any such vehicle assumes 100% of the liability for damage or injury should those outlined responsibilities be ignored. 

Joining the committee virtually to speak in favor of the bill was Tom Deary, a self-described “ambassador of the performance racing industry,” who said, “What this bill does is certainly going to put West Virginia on the leading point.”

At the conclusion of Deary’s remarks, Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said, “This is the kind of civil justice reform that we need, and that I’m always going to support. It does away with ‘sue and settle’ type lawsuits, or somebody trying to shake somebody down for some money when there shouldn’t even be a potential claim there.”

HB 2569 was then approved by the committee. The next item of business was HB 3499, which seeks to “permit joint tenancy with rights of survivorship when transfer on death deeds specify a joint tenancy with right of survivorship.”

As explained by counsel, “What (HB 3499) does is permit ‘transfer on death’ deeds – that is a deed that involves property. When the owner of the property dies, it automatically tranfers to another individual.”

Counsel noted that current law does not allow these transfers to occur using the “joint right of survivorship.” Transfers must be done as a “tenancy in common.”

“The tenancy in common is, if you own property with another individual, you own a percentage of it and you can transfer that percentage at any time,” Counsel further explained. “With a joint right of survivorship what happens is that, if you die, your interest immediately transfers to the other individual who shares ownership of the property.”

“(The bill) simply says that if the transfer on death deed specifies that it transfers your interest to another person with a joint right of survivorship, then that is permitted,” Counsel added.

In the event that property has multiple owners, according to counsel, the transfer on death deed is nullified and ownership is transferred to the individual with tenancy in common. 

A proposed amendment by Sen. Laura Chapman, R-Ohio, clarifying that the changes made by the bill are not retroactive was adopted by the committee prior to their advancing HB 3499 to the full Senate.

The discussion surrounding HB 3479, which calls for the creation of “requirements for use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones),” was next for the committee, and lasted nearly 45 minutes. 

The purpose of the bill is to regulate aerial drone use in areas designated as “critical infrastructure,” or to be used in such a way as to invade an individual or business’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The bill makes exceptions for law enforcement, as well as “licensed and accredited news gathering organizations” operating drones at a minimum of 400 feet above ground. 

“The 400 feet designation comes from the fact that most commercially available drones have a restriction that doesn’t let them fly more than 400 feet from their point of take off,” Counsel explained. 

Sen. Mike Stuart, R-Kanawha, was the first to question counsel, asking, “What is an accredited new organization – so no fake news organizations?”

According to counsel, there is no definition for a “licensed and accredited news organization” within the bill, adding that “the objective is to say your local television station.” 

“We’re certainly giving those who would get the protection of that (First) Amendment an area of attack later,” Stuart replied. “And perhaps rightfully so.”

On hand to answer questions was the bill’s sponsor, Del. Bob Fehrenbacher, R-Wood. In response to a question from Sen. Chapman regarding the exclusion of “citizen journalists” from the bill’s exceptions, Fehrenbacher said, “My concern about that is potential claims of someone who might decide to do something and claim to be a citizen journalist.”

“My concern would be that ‘citizen journalist’ can be very expansive,” Fehrenbacher noted.

Chapman disagreed, saying, “The First Amendment is the First Amendment.

“I don’t want to prohibit people who are journalists,” Chapman added, “Even if they aren’t mainstream journalists.”

AFter discussion regarding the bill, Chapman proposed her second amendment of the day – one which would remove the language “licensed and accredited” when referring to a “news gathering organization.” Much as with her first, Chapman’s second proposed amendment was approved by the committee prior to their adoption of the bill. HB 3479 will now be referred to the full Senate. 

The final bill before the committee was HB 3188, which seeks to establish an alert system for missing cognitively impaired persons. Similar in design to current “amber” and “silver” alerts, the bill calls for the creation of a new “purple” alert which would assist with the location of cognitively impaired persons who do not otherwise fall into an existing alert category.

HB 3188 was adopted by the committee, and will now be referred to the full Senate with the recommendation of passage. 

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