- On Sunday, a Kentucky man was arrested after he blasted a small drone out of the sky over his yard. William Merideth says he was protecting his property rights and his privacy.
- The owner of the $1,800 drone insists he wasn't trying to invade anyone's privacy. He says he was trying to get pictures of a friend's house, and that he kept the drone at a respectful height of 200 feet.
- Local authorities say Merideth violated laws against shooting guns in the town of Hillview.
- Merideth may also have run afoul of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, which make it a crime to shoot down aircraft regardless of whether they are manned or unmanned.
While Merideth's vigilante tactics might not be legal, his actions reflected common concerns that drones can threaten privacy. There are currently few federal regulations governing snooping by drones, and it's unclear how a patchwork of state laws will apply to unmanned aerial vehicles. A firearm is probably the wrong way to protect our privacy against invasion by drones, but it remains to be seen whether the law will give property owners better options.
The drone shootdown sparked a dramatic confrontation
Merideth and the drone's owner disagree about what the drone was doing before it was shot down.
Meredith claims, "I came out and it was down by the neighbor’s house, about 10 feet off the ground, looking under their canopy that they’ve got under their back yard."
But the owner, David Boggs, disputes that. He produced data showing that the drone never went below 193 feet.
"We didn't hover, we didn't go down, we didn't do any of that," Boggs told local television station WDRB. His data does show the drone had been over Meredith's land for about 30 seconds before it was hit.
Merideth says that after he shot down the drone, Boggs arrived at his house with three friends.
"They asked me, 'Are you the S-O-B that shot my drone?' and I said, 'Yes I am,'" Merideth said. "I had my 40 mm Glock on me and they started toward me and I told them, 'If you cross my sidewalk, there's gonna be another shooting.'"
Soon the police arrived and helped to defuse the situation. Merideth was arrested, and the drone was returned to its owner.
Shooting down a drone is probably illegal
Merideth has been charged with first-degree criminal mischief and first-degree wanton endangerment, according to the local television station that broke the story. Hillview police Detective Charles McWhirter told WDRB that it was against the law to fire a gun in the city.
An FAA spokesperson added that shooting down drones is dangerous. "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," the FAA's Les Dorr told WDRB.
It's not clear if snooping on your neighbor with a drone is legal
One of Merideth's neighbors said that "a drone hovering with a camera is creepy and weird." Many Americans agree. But right now, it's not clear if hovering over someone's home with a drone violates any laws.
There are a number of federal regulations governing the private use of drones, but these rules are focused on safety, not privacy. FAA regulations limit small amateur drones like the one in the Kentucky case to flying below 400 feet. They can't be heavier than 55 pounds, nor can they be used for commercial purposes. But there are no federal laws against drones being creepy.
So if you want to stop someone from snooping on you with a drone, you'll want to turn to state law. The Brookings Institution's Wells C. Bennett has a good rundown of how state privacy laws might apply to privately operated drones like the one in the Kentucky case. When Bennett surveyed the law last year, only 13 states had specialized drone privacy laws that might apply in a case like this. In the rest of the country, an aggrieved neighbor would have to rely on more general state laws:
An unannounced Quadcopter hover, inside a neighbor’s back yard barbecue and at hair-parting altitude, could theoretically put a drone operator on the hook for trespassing. This depends on how a state trespassing statute has been written and how far a court is willing to go in interpreting it. Also in play are the classic state-law "privacy" offenses. The prohibitions against invading privacy, intruding upon seclusion, publishing private facts, and stalking all might be implicated when a drone, heavily sensored up, hears or sees somebody who doesn’t wish to be heard or seen.
In most states, there haven't been enough privacy disputes to test the boundaries of the law, so we don't really know how far drone owners can go before their snooping is against the law.
Drone privacy regulations could run afoul of the First Amendment
While many Americans find drone surveillance creepy, drones also have beneficial — and possibly even constitutionally protected —uses. For example, I interviewed legal scholar Margot Kaminski a couple of years ago about this, and she pointed out that drones can be valuable for news organizations.
"If you have a news organization hovering over a protest and videoing cops beating protesters, that's really valuable for the First Amendment," she told me in 2013. Courts have already ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of private citizens to video-record the actions of public officials. The same reasoning seems to apply to recordings taken by a drone.