For the first time, a federal grand jury has indicted an individual for the felony of shooting down a drone with a gun. Recently, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Florida announced that it would prosecute a man for the federal crime of plane destruction. The individual faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Many people reading this are arguably wondering why destroying a drone, which probably costs less than a thousand dollars, can justify 30 years in prison. The answer lies in the law he is accused of having broken and how the definition of unmanned aircraft has evolved.
In 1956, Congress enacted 18 USC § 32 (a) (1), which made it a crime “willfully.” . . destroy, deactivate or destroy any aircraft within the special jurisdiction of the United States for aircraft. . . . “Special jurisdiction over United States aircraft” is defined in 49 USC § 46501 (2) to include “a civil aircraft of the United States…” A “civil aircraft of the United States” is defined in under 49 USC § 40102 (17) as “an aircraft registered under Chapter 441 of this Title”. The drone registration requirements contained in 14 CFR part 48 were, in turn, promulgated in accordance with 49 USC part 441. Therefore, if we go all the way to the bottom of this string of definitions, there is little doubt that, although the law concerning the destruction of an aircraft was originally intended to apply to manned aircraft, it also applies to all unmanned aircraft which are not registered, with the exception of some.
However, there have been numerous well-publicized incidents where people have shot down drones with apparent impunity. For example, we’ve all seen articles with titles like Minnesota man shoots down drone with shotgun, and A woman shoots a drone: “It hovered for a few seconds and I smashed it to pieces.»What explains this different treatment?
The answer to this question lies in the discretionary power of the prosecution. Just because someone commits a crime does not mean they will automatically be prosecuted. The United States Attorney’s Office has limited resources and has great latitude in how it uses those resources. Therefore, the prosecution will depend on the identity of the alleged criminal and the circumstances of the crime.
In this case, the US attorney describe the incident as follows:
According to court documents, on July 11, 2021, deputies from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office responded to a burglary at a 10-acre commercial property in Mount Dora. MPs deployed a law enforcement drone to aid in the outdoor search, but the drone was destroyed by gunfire from a nearby property. When MPs responded to that location, they confronted Goney, who admitted he had just shot down the drone with a .22 caliber rifle. He claimed drones “harassed” him. Goney also admitted to MPs that he couldn’t legally own a gun – he already has 29 felony convictions in Florida. As a convicted felon, Goney is prohibited from owning firearms and ammunition under federal law.
So in this case we have: (1) a criminal with 29 previous convictions, (2) with an illegal gun, who (3) shoots down a police drone. This obviously elevates the case above other well-publicized incidents that have gone unpunished.
Does this indictment mean there will be a new crackdown on people who shoot down drones? Probably not, but it should be borne in mind that if you try to shoot down a drone and something goes wrong, the government has all the tools it needs to impose an extremely serious sanction.