Why Shooting Down Drones is a Federal Crime
A drone is an aircraft under the Federal Aviation Regulations, which means destroying a drone is legally the same as destroying a 747.
Shooting down drones is all over the news lately. A Kentucky man used “Number 8 birdshot” to shoot down a multi-rotor over his backyard. A Modesto marksman shot down a drone over his neighbor’s farm. A New Jersey Man hit the news for doing the same thing.
Though Yosemite Sam would be proud of all this, let’s be clear: shooting down a drone is a federal crime.
Does that surprise you? If so, you’re not alone.
There is a widespread misconception that drones can be shot down with no federal consequences. That’s just not true as the law stands today. Now let’s look at why.
Drones Are Aircraft
A drone is an aircraft under the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). Shooting down an aircraft is a federal crime. The penalties include twenty years in prison under 18 U.S.C. § 32(a). A threat to shoot down an aircraft can get you five years in prison under 18 U.S.C. § 32(c). The government can also impose fines of up to $250,000. This puts a damper on vigilante efforts.
Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Because it’s complicated.
Drone law is changing so quickly no one can predict how courts will treat aviation regulations when applied to unmanned aircraft. Until fairly recently, there was a vigorous debate about whether FARs even applied to drones. The textbook case is that of Raphael Pirker, the first person to successfully challenge the FAA’s authority to apply regulations governing manned flight to drone operations.
Pirker was hired by the University of Virginia to film video with his drone. The FAA hit Pirker with a $10,000 fine for this commercial flight. The FAA argued the flight was a “reckless” operation of an “aircraft.”
Federal Law (18 USC § 32)
(a) Whoever willfully—
(1) sets fire to, damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks any aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or any civil aircraft used, operated, or employed in interstate, overseas, or foreign air commerce;
...shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years or both.
As I’ve written in my book (which you can get for free), Pirker’s case was taken up by attorney Brendan Schulman, who successfully argued to an Administrative Law Judge that a small drone could not be an “aircraft” under the existing regulations. This is because the regulations were written to apply to manned aircraft. You can read the order here.
The FAA appealed to the NTSB. (Our law firm filed a brief to support Pirker). Though the NTSB eventually overturned the Administrative Law Judge’s decision, the case shows us how gray the law here can be. Pirker eventually settled with the FAA for a small amount.
It’s not surprising that the law is confusing when the experts disagree!
The lesson from the Pirker case is that, as the law stands today, all aviation regulations apply to drones. Hobbyist drone flights are only permitted under the FAA’s guidelines. Commercial drone flights are only allowed under a Section 333 Exemption or similar approval. This is the way of things until the FAA finalizes its “small drone,” or “sUAS” rule.
The upshot? Consider every drone an “aircraft” under the federal regulations.
Destruction of Drones Is a Federal Crime
If drones are aircraft, and all the “aircraft” laws apply, then destroying a drone is legally the same as destroying a 747.
Though no U.S. attorney has brought federal charges against a drone shooter yet, it is a possibility under the current state of the law.
The law is similar outside of the U.S. For example, London attorney Peter Lee has written about the criminal consequences of shooting down drones in the U.K.
No matter where you go, the bottom line is clear: shooting down drones is a crime.