A Northern Arizona drone operator is facing state felony and possibly federal charges after he flew his unmanned aircraft over an area where crews are battling a wildfire. The area had been designated a no-fly zone for non-firefighting aircraft.
The 54-year-old drone operator was arrested on charges of endangerment and unlawfully operating an unmanned aircraft. Last year the state's governor passed a law that makes it a crime for a drone to interfere with law enforcement or emergency operations. Now, flying a drone or other unmanned aircraft in a no-fly zone is a Class 6 felony. If convicted for a first offense, a defendant can be sentenced to as much as two years in prison. The drone operator may face a civil penalty of up to $25,000. Local investigators in the case also met with federal officials to discuss whether additional charges could be filed against the drone operator based on federal statutes regarding temporary flight restrictions.
Sheriff officials said flying the drone into restricted airspace put at risk aircrews, ground fire crews, and 14 aircraft, including five helicopters, three large air tankers, and five heavy air tankers.
Because smoke from the fire reduces visibility, pilots are less likely to spot a drone in time to prevent a crash, according to firefighting officials. Pilots spotted the drone flying at their same altitude, and for safety purposes, the pilots had to cease fighting the fire and ground their planes until the drone left the airspace. Pulling the planes away from the wildfire meant recalling crews on the ground because they were left unprotected without the firefighting aircraft, according to local officials.
The drone operator was arrested after multiple witnesses reported seeing him operating the unmanned aircraft in the vicinity of the wildfire. Based on witness descriptions of the man and his vehicle, a sheriff's deputy pulled him over and found the drone. Further investigation revealed the man had previously posted on his website photos of the fire taken by the drone. After his arrest, another drone was spotted over the fire, but that operator has yet to be found. In May, four drones were spotted near another wildfire in eastern Arizona, causing firefighting aircraft to be grounded. One drone pilot was arrested. And recently, a drone was spotted over a wildfire in New Mexico.
To avoid legal troubles, drone operators need to exercise good judgement in all circumstances, not just during emergency situations. In January, two high-profile drone incidents were in the Seattle news. A jury unanimously found a man guilty of reckless endangerment after the drone he was piloting at a 2015 parade crashed into a woman, injuring her. The man was sentenced to 30 days in jail and assessed a $500 fine. It was a precedent-setting case, according to local news coverage, because although other drone pilots have been arrested and fined for crashes, this was the first time in the United States a drone pilot had been jailed.
Another pilot faces charges of reckless endangerment after crashing his drone into the Space Needle last New Year's Eve, nearly striking workers who were on the roof, 575 feet above the ground, preparing for a fireworks show.
With new court decisions made daily and laws being enacted all the time, it takes a knowledgeable attorney to stay on top of the latest developments. Regardless of the circumstances, everyone deserves the best defense. If you have been arrested or are facing criminal charges, call the Seattle Law Office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.