Last week, a federal complaint was filed against Andrew Hernandez in federal District Court in California charging him with the unsafe operation of an unmanned aircraft (or drone). The allegations against Hernandez include hindering a police investigation of a burglary at a pharmacy. While a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter was heading to the scene, it tried to avoid Hernandez’s drone, but it could not get around the drone’s flight path and the drone struck the bottom of the LAPD helicopter. The helicopter had to make an emergency landing and suffered damage to the nose, antenna, and bottom cowlings.
A LAPD officer interviewed a witness nearby who indicated that Hernandez frequently flew his drone near the pharmacy. Portions of the drone were found around the pharmacy, including a portion of the drone that contained the serial number. A warrant was issued to search the drone’s camera and SD card. Among the photos there was a picture of Hernandez holding a drone controller.
When police interviewed Hernandez, he told them that he was curious because of the helicopter noise so he flew his drone to see what was happening. He also stated that it was hard to see in the darkness, but that suddenly he saw his drone being ‘smacked’ by the helicopter.
18 USC § 39B(a)(2) makes it a crime for any person who operates a drone and “recklessly interferes with, or disrupts the operation of, an aircraft carrying one or more occupants operating in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, in a manner that poses an imminent safety hazard to such occupants[.]” A violation shall be punished by a fine and/or imprisonment for not more than one year; however, if the person causes serious bodily injury or death during the commission of an offense, they can be fined and/or imprisoned for a term of up to 10 years.
This case should warn drone pilots everywhere, and remember, the images and video collected on your drone could be used against you in a case like this. Operate and record wisely.