Last week I wrote about the increased use of drones during the pandemic – you might say they’re flying off the shelves. Drones can handle multiple tasks that, if performed by a person, would require close interaction – something that is problematic if we’re trying to social distance.
Drones are being used to deliver groceries and fast food, to safely examine bridges and other infrastructure for possible repairs, and to inspect construction or remodeling projects to ensure jobs are being done correctly.
So, our skies may soon be filled with flying vehicles performing a variety of functions. As a result, many people feel their privacy is being invaded by all these drones, especially when they come equipped with cameras. But even if you’re feeling violated, DON’T SHOOT DOWN THE DRONES.
In May, a man in Butterfield, Minnesota was operating his drone over Butterfield Foods, a food production plant, to gather evidence that the plant was slaughtering chickens because of the pandemic. While a food processing plant slaughtering chickens isn’t necessarily a real journalistic exposé, eventually two spectators came over to ask the man what he was doing. Shortly after that, Travis Duane Winters showed up with his shotgun and blasted the $1,900 drone out of the sky. Purportedly it made a drone man cry.
Winters was promptly charged in Watonwan County District Court with criminal damage to property and reckless discharge of a weapon within city limits.
However, in addition to violating Minnesota law, Winters’ actions were also illegal under the same federal aviation laws that make it illegal to shoot down passenger aircraft.
Title 18 of the United States Code is the main chapter of the federal government’s statutes that deals with federal crimes and criminal procedure. Section 32 of the title states that whoever willfully “sets fire to, damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks any aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States” may be fined and/or imprisoned for up to 20 years.
The definition of “aircraft” for the purposes of this statute is incredibly broad, and arguably covers drones. The statute also refers to aircraft being used in interstate commerce. This could certainly encompass drones if they’re making deliveries for nationwide companies, such as Amazon.
The Federal Aviation Administration is tasked with enforcing the laws governing aircraft. Like in Winters’ case, though, the agency has yet to intervene in cases involving violations of 18 U.S. Code § 32, preferring to let states and local municipalities deal with drone assassins.
Many people feel that the hunters are justified, however, as they believe a drone flying over private property should constitute a trespass. Unfortunately, the courts have not addressed this question clearly or consistently. One historic case that might be on point is United States v. Causby, a 1946 Supreme Court case which held that although “the airspace is a public highway,” that did not include “the immediate reaches above the land.” The case revolved around landowners who had to endure planes repeatedly landing or taking off of a nearby runway at just 83 feet above their property.
A guy I know bought a pretty sophisticated drone. He gave me intricate instructions on how to fly it, but it just went over my head.