On January 21, the City of Los Angeles announced the first criminal charges against a drone operator. City Attorney Mike Feuer said that the two defendants, who are 20 and 35 years old respectively, will face misdemeanor charges. For the younger defendant, this is the second time he allegedly flew his drone in restricted areas.

It is a misdemeanor under Los Angeles law for an individual to operate a drone within five miles of an airport, 25 feet of a person, or in excess of 500 feet in the air. Besides having a misdemeanor on one’s personal record, this may also result in up to six months in jail and a fine. The Los Angeles drone ordinance is posted here: LA Regulations on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which can be found online.

According to the City Attorney’s office, the defendants operated a drone near the Los Angeles Police Department’s helipad in downtown LA, and the presence of the drone required a police air vehicle to divert from its intended landing path.

Legislatures and local government entities are passing drone laws with increasing frequency, although enforcement with criminal sanctions has been rare so far. As technology has developed, drones have become more and more sophisticated and are now posing significant dangers to airborne aircraft and even people who may inadvertently come into contact with a drone flying at a very low altitude.

It is unclear at this early state what, if any, defenses are being raised by those charged with the drone laws. The Los Angeles city ordinance (cited above) does not mention the required mental state of the defendant. This could mean that, unless a court interprets an implied required mental state, the defendant may not be able to argue that the drone’s entrance into the five-mile area near the airport was an accident.

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