A legal case pitting a roofing company using a drone to examine the homes they work on, and a neighbor who shot the drone down with a shotgun, is causing a legal challenge to determine who actually owns the skies above your property. And it has some serious privacy ramifications.
“We are in an interesting time now when technology has surpassed the law” – James Mackler, former Blackhawk pilot and partner at Frost/Brown
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of David Boggs, the owner of the drone, who claims his neighbor William Meredith shot the drone out of the sky with his shotgun for no reason, as the drone was not over his property, nor was it invading his privacy. Meredith, by contrast, proudly defends his actions claiming that the drone had trespassed the airspace above his property and was near his daughter.
The lawsuit is being watched closely by privacy advocates and could end up being one of those landmark cases which determines just who owns the sky above someone’s home. Is it public airspace, or private property? With the explosion of drone sales in the last few years, both for hobbies and commercial applications, many believe that the law needs to step in and strictly govern when and where a drone can operate.
The FAA has taken initial steps, requiring registration for all drones between .55 and 55 pounds and requiring drones only fly in daylight hours, within line of sight, and under 400 feet in altitude. There is also a prohibition against flying over crowds, or in restricted airspace determined by local authorities. Commercial pilots have even more restrictions including requiring passing of a test for certification and a background check.
“Operators need to know where they can fly and owners must know when they can reasonably expect privacy and be free of prying eyes.” – Mackler, attorney who specializes in drone law
But in this case, the question remains whether the drone was improperly operated by Boggs, or if there was merely a trigger happy neighbor looking to remove an annoyance near his home. Boggs maintains he was flying at about 200 feet above the ground for only about two minutes when Mackler took a shotgun and blew it out of the sky.
“What happens typically is that law enforcement doesn’t know what to do and civil suits are uncommon as most people don’t want to get involved due to the costs.” – Mackler to Reuters.
“To be honest with you, at the time I did what I did I was reacting as most homeowners would, protecting their property, their kids … I didn’t know who was operating the drone or for what purpose,” Meredith told Reuters. Meredith was eventually charged with wanton endangerment and criminal mischief, but the judge in the case ruled he had a right to shoot down the aircraft.
According to Mackler, at least once a month there’s a legal problem stemming from someone shooting a drone out of the sky, with law enforcement puzzled about what the legal landscape is in order to enforce some sort of regulation. This has prompted many communities to pass local legislation in order to fill the gap. My community, for instance, has passed a law prohibiting flight in any park near people.
But what do you do when a drone is flying over private property and there’s a an altercation. According to Mackler, even civil lawsuits like Boggs’ are rare because people don’t want to spend the money. The lawsuit was filed in district court, so it’s effect would only have personal ramifications.
In slightly related news, celebrity Mike Rowe nearly became a drone slayer himself recently. The Dirty Jobs star discovered a snooping drone loitering over his home and at first, his reaction was to grab his own shotgun and take care of business. But ever the pop culture philosopher, Rowe grabbed his cellphone and took a picture, and then penned a soliloquy to his fans on Facebook.
“I’d like to tell you I stopped because I realized that discharging my weapon in such a fashion would be frowned on by the local constabulary,” Rowe wrote. “But really, what stopped me was the realization that somewhere nearby, a drone operator was staring at his monitor, pondering the image of a very naked guy with a very familiar face, pointing a shotgun into the lens of his GoPro and looking every bit as crazy as Gary Busey and Nick Nolte at the nadir of their careers. I froze, because I could see the video that might very well appear on the local news, (with considerable blurring, naturally.) The same video that might soon appear on my mother’s computer screen, along with the headline – “Dirty Jobs Guy Totally Loses It – Gets Naked and Shoots Drone From San Francisco Skies.”
Had Rowe opted for his first choice, it’s likely he would’ve gotten everything he saw, plus a more higher profile lawsuit than Boggs. Either way, sooner or later a higher court will have to answer the broader issue … who really owns the airspace? Then, do drone operators have a right to use it and do people have a right to defend their privacy from it?
It’s like the wild west out there.
Hat tip – Reuter’s International