Look up in the sky! No, it’s not Superman, it’s a drone. Well, maybe some of you are too young to get the reference but drones are becoming a modern version of Superman. They can, and are, being used to ferret out criminal activity and fight forest fires. They are also becoming a menace.
Drones were first offered for sale to private individuals about six years ago and until recently have been subject to few regulations. As their use become ever more common among hobbyist and for commercial purposes (photography, reconnaissance services, etc.) can the law be far behind?
As of August 29, 2016 a commercial drone operator must follow the new set of FAA operational rules ( Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations). Among the requirements are that the operator must be at least 16 years old and have a “remote pilot airman certificate” as well as pass TSA vetting. The drone must fly no more than 400 feet above ground level and below 100 mph. Fortunately for the rest of us, a drone being used for commercial purposes must not fly over people. (I don’t know how that would work for a photography drone operator filming a wedding, for example.) You know those Amazon packages that are going to be delivered by drone? Not happening under Part 107. While the new regulations permit delivery by drone, the rule also requires that the drone remain in the operator’s sight at all times.
Hobbyists would do well to read Part 107 because they might find they unwittingly fall under the commercial drone operator laws, which are more rigorous than those laws regulating non-commercial use of a drone. The FAA’s civilian drone regulations make it a misdemeanor to violate many of the agency’s drone regulations. Failure to abide by these new regulations or any of the evolving laws regulating drone operation can result in arrest or fines under state or local laws as well as federal law (and you can be prosecuted under all three jurisdictions for the same flight.)
As for all drone operators, it is illegal to operate a drone in a reckless manner and can result in civil fines or criminal action. What is considered a “reckless manner?” Flying at “extremely low” altitude, flying the drone under a bridge, or flying the drone directly at a person are some examples of what the FAA has determined is flying in a reckless manner.
And in what is sure to be replicated in cities across the county, Los Angeles has an ordinance that mirrors FAA regulations, which makes it a violation to fly a drone more than 400 feet above ground, within five miles of an airport or within 25 feet of a person. Violation of this ordinance can be punished by up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail.
Not long after the L.A. ordinance went into effect, two men were charged with misdemeanors, one for flying his drone within three miles of hospital heliport and one for flying his drone within a mile of the LAPD Heliport. It’s not hard to see how someone could unwittingly violate the Los Angeles ordinance unless he or she knew the precise location of every airport and heliport in town.
A recent Orange County grand jury report called for every city in Orange County to enact ordinances by next spring regulating drone use and punishing violators with fines and jail time. Currently no such ordinances are on the books. The grand jury report observed that “recreational drone operators are largely self-policed” and noted that unregulated drone operation has the potential to cause serious accidents and invasions of privacy.
With drone sales increasing exponentially (some call them the new iPhone), you can expect more laws and consequent arrests due to illegal or reckless drone operation. It is always my practice to keep up with the ever-changing criminal law landscape and I expect it won’t be long before I am defending an individual prosecuted for his or her unlawful drone operation.
Mr. Weinberg hasn’t had the opportunity to defend Superman but he can defend you if you violate a drone law or any other criminal law on the books, now or in the future. If you have questions regarding any criminal matter, please feel free to contact Mr. Weinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (949) 474-8008.