Around five years ago, people located outside the Calhoun State Prison began making regular cargo runs to the facility with drones carrying cellphones that allowed a group of prisoners — led by a man serving a life sentence, Daniel Roger Alo — to develop and run a multi-state methamphetamine distribution conspiracy that tied in no fewer than four widely recognized street gangs.
Ronnie Music Jr., who notoriously won the state lottery and then got into the narcotics business, served as the “banker” for this conspiracy.
According to law enforcement testimony in federal court, those drones had payload capacities of 16 pounds.
The state Senate Public Safety Committee unanimously passed a bill by voice vote Monday that would create no-fly zones over any detention facility in the state, while also banning photography of those facilities without a permit.
“I first learned about the problems of criminals using drones to drop contraband such as cellphones, drugs, weapons, etc., and take photographs over our state prisons, when former (state Department of Corrections) Commissioner (Gregory) Dozier highlighted this in his appropriations request last year,” said state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta. “Since that time, I’ve been talking to the (Federal Aviation Administration) about this, because they ultimately control the airspace. As you know, technology frequently gets ahead of the law, and criminals, also, can get ahead of the law sometimes, so we need our law to catch up.”
She said the bill adds a subsection to the state penal code that prohibits the use of drones to carry payload that’s already prohibited by the prison. Kirkpatrick added that it covers state prisons, probation detention facilities, jails and any similar institution operated by the federal government, state, localities or a private corporation.
The state DOC and Georgia Sheriff’s Association announced their support for the legislation, Senate Bill 6. Sean Ferguson, who works in new projects technology for DOC, said a lot of people don’t understand the issues involved. For instance, some drones come equipped with software that prevent it from flying near or over sensitive locations, but that software, of course, can be hacked.
“You just mentioned hacking the software — that’s the biggest issue,” Ferguson said. “It’s like a ‘no guns’ sign on a bank, and people are still robbing them with guns. The law is as good as the person that’s behind it, and following the rules.”
He said most drones used in prison deliveries go up at night — when it’s already illegal to fly them without a permit — and it’s easy to prove intent because the drones usually have contraband on them or are in the process of a multiple- delivery effort. Ferguson said DOC gets about 300 sightings a year, around 25 a month, and have captured seven. He said intercepting the crafts can be hard to do.
In other Senate business, state Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, had committees pass bills of his Thursday and Monday. The bill heard Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee provides for the free e-filing of certain legal documents.
“I’ve been working with some of the judges of the superior court — we’ve had input from the … clerk’s council, and basically what the bill does … it’s giving an attorney the option of filing leave of absence or conflict letters either electronically or by filing it with the clerk’s office by paper,” Ligon said of Senate Bill 38. “And, I understand that at times — all of this has never happened to me — there may be a need to file a conflict letter in a case that’s not been assigned yet, and in that case you really can’t file electronically. So, this is a vehicle to allow that to occur.
“Then, in the next section, we’re exempting certain filings from paying the filing fee when they’re filed electronically. And, those are pleadings or documents by the attorney general, secretary of state, district attorney or public defender. Leave of absences and conflict notices.”
State Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, suggested and received approval to amend the bill expanding free filing of leaves of absence and conflict notices.
“Sen. (Bill) Cowsert made a good point — the high cost he had of filing his leave of absence prior to session, and that’s something too that an attorney really can’t pass along to a client,” Strickland said. “It’s a fee that they incur for their leave, and so I think a good compromise is to still make it mandatory, so there’s a uniformity there, you can still see a conflict letter before court online, and a leave of absence can still be assessed through the same process, but make it free.”
Ligon jokingly consented to the amendment before the committee vote.
“I don’t have an objection to the amendment, it’s just if Sen. Strickland can’t go on vacation, please don’t blame me — I tried,” Ligon said.
The other bill, which passed Monday in the Judiciary Committee, was the annual legislation to clean up state laws — Senate Bill 52.
“Throughout the years, legislative councils working on legislation, they may notice a misspelled word or references that need to be corrected,” Ligon said. “An example of this would be on Page 1, lines 13-15, where we change, by replacing, ‘this chapter may be cited’ to ‘this chapter shall be known and may be cited.’ Things like that.”
It quickly passed the committee on voice vote.