In Kentucky the drone slayer highlights the privacy issues with drones flying over private property

October 29, 2015 |

Bernstein of Leigh v Skyviews & General Ltd [1978] 1 QB 479 is generally regarded as authority for the proposition that overhead flight which does not affect the use of land does not commit a trespass when flying over it.  Put another way the rights of a landowner in the airspace above that person’s land is restricted to such a height necessary for the ordinary use and enjoyment of the land and the structures upon it and above that height the landowner has not greater rights than the general public. The proposition is technology neutral but was clearly envisaging overhead flight by fixed wing aircraft. Such aircraft have quite minimum altitude when flying normally.  The use of drones may require a rethink of this proposition.  Drones can generally, and usually must, fly at lower altitudes.  Being small versatile, often with 4 rotors, they can drop to very low altitudes.  When flying over private property the question is what is the height that permits the ordinary use of the land.  When does the use of a drone constitute trespass or a nuisance?  The current regulations on flight and the restrictions on flight relate to air safety. The common law has not developed to provide any solid guidance.  Unfortunately the Federal Government has assiduously avoided properly regulating the usage of drones and creating a cause of action arising out of their misuse, such as a statutory right to privacy.  That has been a failure of public policy. In the United States, England and Europe action is being taken.

In Kentucky on 26 July 2015 a William Meredith shot down a drone which had crossed his property line.  He claimed to have shot it when it got close to his two daughters who were sunbathing in the family garden area. He was charged with criminal mischief.  That story attracted considerable publicity including Hillview man arrested for shooting down drone; cites right to privacy and Father ‘shot down drone hovering over his garden where daughters were sunbathing’.

Those charges were dismissed last Monday with the presiding Judge finding that Meredith was defending his right to privacy.  The case has been reported by Slate in Judge Dismisses Case Against Man Who Shot Down a Drone Over His Property and Engadget in Judge says drone was invading the privacy of the man who shot it. The silliness in shooting at a drone is obvious.  Much like the silliness and shooting into the air generally.  A shot may miss and carry over into another property and hit someone or something. At minimum it is a chronic overreaction.  That said drones can and do intrude into personal private spaces.  That has been well documented.  The question is finding an appropriate legal response.

The Slate article provides:

Over the past year or so, many of my Slate colleagues and I have staked out a firm position on guns and drones: namely, that it is a bad idea to shoot your gun at someone else’s drone. Not only is this dangerous, it’s a tactic that’s likely to backfire. If you shoot at a drone that has strayed onto your property, more often than not you will be arrested and made to reimburse the drone’s owner. Every now and then, though, armed vigilantism pays off. For proof of this, I bring you the case of a Kentucky man named William Merideth—otherwise known as the Drone Slayer.

On July 26, 2015, after his daughter reported seeing a strange drone hovering nearby, Merideth grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun, stepped onto his porch, and fired at the object once it crossed over his property line. The drone went down, and, according to Merideth, its owner soon arrived to retrieve it. “Four guys came over to confront me about it, and I happened to be armed, so that changed their minds,” Merideth told WDRB back in July. “I told them, ‘If you cross my sidewalk, there’s gonna be another shooting.’ ” The men retreated. Somewhere in America, “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. Then, as was inevitable, the cops showed up; Merideth was arrested and charged with criminal mischief. Sic transit gloria, I guess.

On Monday, however, the Drone Slayer was exonerated in a county court when Judge Rebecca Ward dismissed the charges against him. Judge Ward reasoned that Merideth was merely defending his right to privacy when he fired at the offending drone, which Merideth feared was being used to spy on him and his family. “I feel vindicated,” Merideth told WAVE3 News. “Police told me there was nothing they could do about it. Nobody would do anything about it, so I did something about it.” Can we somehow get this man into tonight’s GOP debate?

Merideth’s case notwithstanding, I stand behind everything that Slate has published about the folly of firing on other people’s drones. Doing so remains illegal in many jurisdictions. And it’s worth noting that the drone’s owner, David Boggs, plans to appeal the case to a grand jury; Boggs challenges Merideth’s claim that the drone was hovering at a low altitude. (The drone did have a camera on it, and actually filmed its own demise; Boggs has posted the relevant footage on YouTube.) Whatever the ultimate outcome here, the case serves as a good reminder that no matter how bullish technology pundits are on drones as the Future of Everything, a preponderance of regular people just find them creepy and invasive. “This is a victory for him today, I guess,” Boggs told WAVE3. “But it’s far from over.” That’s for sure.

One Response to “In Kentucky the drone slayer highlights the privacy issues with drones flying over private property”

  1. In Kentucky the drone slayer highlights the privacy issues with drones flying over private property | Australian Law Blogs

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