The question of whether and in what circumstances police will need a warrant to fly drones equipped with surveillance cameras is shaping up as a central one in the upcoming session of the Connecticut legislature.

The issue was at the core of a panel discussion Oct. 8 at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. The discussion, organized by the Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee, followed a demonstration of a drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, in flight over the grounds of the state Capitol.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut has been advocating for legislation that would require police to get a warrant before flying a surveillance drone, except in emergencies, such as a search for a missing person. Last year a bill with a warrant requirement died in the Judiciary Committee after evincing strong opposition from the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. The issue was sent to the program review committee, which is expected to recommend legislation in the 2015 session.

David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut and a member of the Oct. 8 panel, told the committee that now is the time for the legislature to act. In 2015, the FAA is expected to set rules on drone use, opening up the skies to government and private drones, and McGuire said it could take a decade for the U.S. Supreme Court to address the resulting questions about privacy.

"Our position is, don't wait," he said.

But Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore, legislative chair for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, told the committee that no legislation is needed. "We're very concerned about any legislation that the legislature could possibly pass that would affect law enforcement's ability to do its job," he said. He also suggested that the legislature has only limited authority to regulate drones, a position supported by Peter Sachs, an attorney specializing in drones who operated the drone for demonstration at the Capitol.

Salvatore suggested that current law would allow police to use drone surveillance the same way they use helicopters for surveillance, without a warrant. But McGuire said drones represent a completely different technology and a far greater threat to privacy because they can, for example, hover outside the window of a private home.

In the ensuing discussion, Salvatore conceded that in some circumstances police might need a warrant. "If we had information that something illegal was taking place on the second floor of a residence or a building and we wanted to take the drone up and peer through a window" a warrant "probably would be appropriate," he said. Fellow panelists Dora Schriro, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, and Bruce Lockwood, senior assistant state's attorney, agreed that a warrant is necessary when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Salvatore said police should be able to use drones freely for crowd control and general surveillance. McGuire said the casual use of drones over public gatherings could chill free speech rights and should be limited to cases where there is an emergency.

"The concern is that there will be indiscriminate use of drones and that it will dramatically change the feeling of our society and violate people's expectation of privacy," McGuire said. "We believe that that warrant requirement is absolutely essential and will eventually be the law. We just shouldn't wait for the courts to get there."