New state bill would give cops the freedom to shoot drones down

Posted Mar 4, 2016 by Megan Hamilton
A new bill introduced in Utah would allow law enforcement to shoot down drones in some situations and would also place limits on drone activity.
Nearly 700 close encounters with drones have been reported by pilots so far this year  according to ...
Nearly 700 close encounters with drones have been reported by pilots so far this year, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics.
Nicolas Maeterlinck, BELGA/AFP/File
Senate Bill 210 sets a number of limits on drone behavior that don't currently exist at the state or federal level, according to Ars Technica.
Introduced by Sen. Wayne Harper (R-Salt Lake)
, the bill appears to be aimed at a number of drone-related incidents that have occurred nationwide.
Senate Bill 210 establishes a concept known as "aerial trespass." At this time, the concept doesn't exist elsewhere in the United States, and Ars Technica reports that it's likely an effort to avoid situations of landowners shooting drones out of the sky. The bill also bans the use of drones within 500 feet of correctional facilities, and forbids drones from flying within three miles of a "wildland fire." It also forbids surveillance of gatherings of 500 or more people and aerial voyeurism.
But there is one troubling aspect of the bill, because one section allows for the "neutralizing" of drones by first responders and law enforcement.
Specifically, according to the bill, this means "to force the termination of the flight of an unmanned aircraft by (i) disabling or damaging the unmanned aircraft; (ii) interfering with any portion of the unmanned aircraft system associated with the unmanned aircraft; or (iii) otherwise taking control of the unmanned aircraft or the unmanned aircraft system associated with the unmanned aircraft."
Drones have been implicated in some incidents, Ars Technica reports. In California, some unmanned aerial vehicles interfered with firefighting efforts. In another case, one crashed into power lines in Hollywood and another one struck and injured a baby in Pasadena. And in another incident, a Kentucky homeowner shot down a drone that was hovering over his property, and that spurred a federal civil lawsuit.
Fortune reports that aerial trespassing is a relatively new phenomenon, and Harper's bill defines it as flying a drone lower than 400 feet above private property. But for some authorities, the broad authority given to Utah law enforcement officials is worrisome.
Drones can only be shot down under certain conditions, such as if there's a threat to individuals or property, or if the need to create a safer environment for emergency response vehicles and personnel to operate arises, or if the flight path of airlines needs to be protected, SB 210 states. Civilians, however, wouldn't be allowed to shoot down drones.
And law enforcement would be prohibited from shooting down drones if there is the potential of injuring people or animals, or if it would result in property damage of over $5,000. In this case, the value of the drone isn't factored into the property damage figure. While law enforcement is authorized to shoot drones down, the bill discourages destroying them.
It states:
"A law enforcement officer who neutralizes an unmanned aircraft in accordance with this section shall neutralize the unmanned aircraft: (a) in the most safe and practicable manner available; and (b) in a manner that causes as little damage or destruction as possible to the unmanned aircraft system and other property."
This issue is also of concern to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and it notes there are real hazards to falling drones, Popular Mechanics notes. Some experts also note that the definition of drone isn't straightforward; as written, the law authorizes the shooting down of machines the FAA classifies as aircraft.
FAA spokesman Les Dorr told Ars Technica that shooting down a drone constitutes a "significant safety hazard."
"An unmanned aircraft hit by gunfire could crash, causing damage to persons or property on the ground, or it could collide with other objects in the air," he said in an e-mail. "Shooting at unmanned aircraft could result in a civil penalty from the FAA and/or criminal charges filed by federal, state or local law enforcement. There also may be state or municipal ordinances that address property owners' rights."
Fortunately there are a number of drone-capture technologies out there, including nets that are fired into the air and even trained eagles, Popular Mechanics notes. Law enforcement can even use 12-gauge shotguns loaded with droneshot.
There is however, another weighty issue besides safety. Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington noted there are First Amendment concerns, Ars Technica reports.
He said he's worried that the potential to take down drones, especially those operated by the press, constitutes a threat to free speech.
"In many jurisdictions, courts have interpreted the First Amendment to protect the right to record the police and other officials," he said. "Could an officer 'neutralize' your camera? Why?"
Considering the current political climate in the U.S., this may turn out to be a worrisome situation.