Picture this: You hear a persistent buzz over your roof one afternoon, so you move outside to investigate what the problem could be.
You discover it is a drone buzzing over your property.
So, you go back in, grab your shotgun and shoot that spy out of the sky.
They had no reason to be buzzing over your property in the first place. You don’t trust them and you they were disturbing your quiet enjoyment of your property.
Case closed, right?
Unfortunately, handling a case of disturbance by drone is a sure way to turn things against you fast — land you in trouble with the authorities.
That’s what one resident of Long Island, Gerald Chasteen, realized when he shot his shotgun thrice at a DJI Mavic 2 Zoom that was operating near his property on February 23, 2019.
The owners of the drone, surprised at the loss of connection to their drone, initially thought a bird had taken their device out.
They followed the drone to its last recorded GPS location, and that led them to Gerald Chasteen who confirmed he had shot down their drone. He didn’t believe they had a right to fly over his house.
It turned out the drone operators were not neighborhood scallywags being mischievious, as Gerald had thought.
They were volunteers for a city-wide pet-rescue operation, Missing Angels, Long Island. And they had been scouting the neighborhood for a lost canine, when they connection to their drone suddenly disappeared.
“Did you shoot down our drone?” they enquired.
“Yes, you cannot fly over my house,” Gerald Chasteen replied.
Law enforcement for Suffolk County were then promptly called in, and they charged Mr. Chasteen with third-degree criminal mischief and also prohibited operating of a weapon.
Gerald Chasteen’s case is by no means unique or new.
There are dozens of cases around the world where people have landed in trouble with the law because they decided to shoot down a drone when they felt it was flying where it should not.
For example, in 2015, a man in Kentucky was arrested by the police for firing a quadcopter out of the sky. The charges were later dropped in this shooting.
Many people believe that they own the airspace above their property and end up in trouble when they try to exercise their “rights”.
Misconceptions that Lead People to Shoot Drones Out of the Sky
Those Drones Are Spying On You
Let’s face it, there is something strangely intimidating about a drone flying towards you or over your property. That is part of what makes them so beautiful to watch.
The sight of them evokes the sort of dystopian fear of an all-knowing, all-seeing 1984 type regime.
And the association that drones have with spying has proven impossible to shake in the mind of the wary public.
But the reality is the overwhelming majority of drones that you are likely to come across will be doing the most innocent things possible like filming the surrounding landscape.
Spying is simply not likely to be what the drone over your house is up to.
First of all, the high-pitched noise of a drone is not the softest sound in the world, and would be terrible for any stealth mission like spying.
Secondly, drones cameras are not the best when it comes to zoom and precision features, unless it’s top-of-the-range. Most recreational operators would have a hard time capturing worthy images from several hundred feet away.
Sure, you may worry if you realize one is buzzing out your window; but if you find one that is buzzing overhead it is most likely an enthusiast enjoying their device or a commercial pilot on a job.
Drones Are Always Up to No Good
Drones have gotten their own share of bad rep caused by unscrupulous individuals using them for all sorts of mischief.
From prison drop-offs to air traffic disturbance, UAVs have been used to carry out malicious acts which have caused members of the public to look upon them with suspicion.
And this is despite all the good that drones are used for.
Drones are taking center stage in the fight to save the environment, search and rescue, security, product delivery, and other noble causes.
The fact is that most drones you come across have a higher chance of being part of a noble endeavor than otherwise.
They are either part of something completely innocent — like a hobbyist enjoying their hobby, or they are making a positive change in your area.
Like searching for a dog gone missing, for example.
It Is Flying Over My Property So I Can Bring It If I Want To
Most people underestimate how complex this issue actually is because they fail to understand it.
This situation pits the rights of landlords to quiet enjoyment of their land and privacy against the property rights of a drone operator to not have their property taken away or damaged.
When a property owner shoots down a drone flying over their property because they were not duly informed, these two rights are pitted against each other.
Another question that rises from this scenario involves settling when the occasion is right for discharging a firearm.
National laws regarding aircraft also have a say in the matter.
Landowners who end up shooting drones out the sky usually think about three things that are not necessarily true:
- Drones are something other than aircraft
- Individuals own the airspace above their homes
- There are no criminal or civil consequences for shooting down a drone
What Does the Law Say About Shooting Drones?
Among the first legal dramas in US drone law was Boggs v. Meredith.
William Meredith is alleged to have fired down a drone operated by John Boggs.
The drone was flying over Meredith’s personal property without his consent when he allegedly fired at it and brought it down.
Boggs promptly sued Meredith in a US federal court in their local Kentucky, seeking $1500 for damage to his drone.
Now, the case was taken to federal court because Boggs insisted that he was flying his drone in federal airspace, and not on Meredith’s property.
Meaning, Meredith had no right to shoot the drone down in response to his property being trespassed.
Eventually the court threw the case out on grounds of jurisdiction without ever settling the issue of whether the drone was in national airspace or trespassing Meredith’s land.
Under federal law in the US and many other areas, it is a crime to willfully destroy or damage aircraft.
In the Boggs v. Meredith case, the judge did not see any reason to permit what she saw as a civil lawsuit into federal court.
Nonetheless, a landowner who shoots down a drone risks being prosecuted under the laws that prohibit willful damage to aircraft. Drones are classified and recognized as aircraft the world over.
A good way to get a better grasp of the proportionality involved when a landowner shoots down a drone would require a more common example:
If someone were to drive onto your property and take pictures, could you as a landowner shoot the trespasser’s car or the trespasser?
The law might vary from one place to another.
One area might have laws that allow the landowner to damage another’s property in self-defense when they feel reasonably threatened.
Another area might stress more on proportionality. Was the gun proportionate response to a camera? And so on.
Then there is the issue of airspace over the property.
A lot of people have the misconception that they own the airspace over their homes.
In actual fact after a certain height, it becomes part and parcel of the national air space, under the jurisdiction of the aviation authorities. Many cases involving the firing down of drones boil down to this issue.
National airspace is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the government through the aviation authorities and thus a drone pilot operating under full compliance with national guidelines has every right to use the space allotted to him by the aviation authorities.
In the US, for example, while most people who bring down drones are charged for vandalism under state law, shooting down a drone also counts as a violation of federal law 18 U.S.C § 32.
A lot of grey areas exist when it comes to shooting a drone out of the sky. And unfortunately, they seem set to persist for a long time given the lack of precedent.
The Boggs v. Meredith case failed to settle any of these misconceptions (in a way it reinforced them) when the judge dismissed the charges without any substantive breakdown of the issue beyond alluding to the general right to personal privacy.
If more had been done to shed light on the legal intricacies involved in the issue, perhaps we may have received some precedent to try and build a cohesive legal understanding that tackles this issue.
The case instead got kicked out on a technicality.
We don’t know what might have played out if it had gone to state court first instead of federal court. And so far, cases under 18 U.S.C. § 32 remain few and far between.