Another Case of Officials Bullying a Legal Drone Operator
A Connecticut man who captured footage of a fatal car accident in Hartford has become the target of an FAA investigation and the victim of harassment by local law enforcement. There was no concern about safety or illegal misuse of the drone and no charges were filed, but police overreaction put the man’s job at risk. It is unclear what interest the FAA has, since the aircraft was not being used for business purposes or being flown at an altitude that would put the case into the agency’s jurisdiction.
Pedro Rivera says that, as a hobby, he’s flown his drone over several news events over the last several weeks, but wasn’t bothered by police until last week, when three Hartford police approached him at the scene of the accident.
The flight got national attention when the Federal Aviation Administration announced today that they’d be investigating the case.
“I’ve been to like five scenes but have never had a problem,” Rivera said. “Their first question was, ‘Do you work for the media?’ I told them I own the drone and was here on my own time.”
Rivera wasn’t charged and wasn’t taken into the station for questioning.
The police later called WFSB, the station where Rivera works. When he showed up for work Monday, he was suspended for the week. He was reinstated Friday and told not to carry station identification while flying. Rivera said that during a meeting with his boss today, the police assumed he was filming for the station.
“They said I was there to film for Channel 3, but that was the first thing I said, that I’m here on my own,” he said.
Operating as a hobbyist, Rivera is allowed to film accident and crime scenes as long as he does not interfere with the police investigation. The FAA has said that flying a drone for commercial purposes, including journalism, is illegal, though an increasing number of drone operators are challenging that assertion. The FAA has never formally instituted commercial drone regulations.
“From a legal perspective, he did nothing wrong under federal law nor under state law,” Peter Sachs, a Connecticut-based attorney and private investigator said. “He wasn’t interfering with the police and there’s a First Amendment right to videotape police on duty. There’s no basis for criminal charges.”
Jason Koebler (Motherboard)
Two strange features of this case are that the police seem to have been interested in targeting the Rivera because they considered him a journalist, while the FAA in previous cases has arbitrarily redefined the scope of their powers to include drone users who stand to profit from filming from an aerial platform (although no laws give them that power). What difference does Rivera’s job make in this situation? Under the First Amendment all Americans theoretically share the same right to free speech.
What do you think? Does the FAA have a responsibility to investigate drone flights that are clearly outside their mandate? Should police pressure law-abiding drone operators if they don’t like what is being filmed?