A jury has returned a unanimous “not guilty” verdict in favor of Arvel Chappell III, the first person charged under the City of Los Angeles’ drone ordinance, which places criminal charges on drone operators who violate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations.
Last year, Mike Feuer, Los Angeles city attorney, said Chappell was cited by police on Dec. 12 for allegedly operating a drone in excess of 400 feet and within ¼ mile of Hooper Heliport, the Los Angeles Police Department’s air support division base. Allegedly, said Feuer, an air unit coming in to land had to alter its path in order to avoid the unmanned aircraft system (UAS). In addition, the city attorney said Chappell was charged with one additional count of operating a drone during non-daylight hours.
The jury’s verdict brings to a close a long legal battle between Chappell and the City of Los Angeles, during which Chappell, a filmmaker and aerospace engineer, challenged the constitutionality of the municipal charges against him as preempted by federal law.
At a hearing in March, Terrence Jones – Chappell’s attorney, a former federal prosecutor now with law firm Ballard Spahr LLP – challenged that the city’s ordinance is preempted by the FAA, which has the sole governing authority to regulate aviation, including drones.
According to Chappell, the challenge resulted in the dismissal of many of the charges – leaving to the jury only the question of whether he operated his drone in a “careless or reckless” manner. The jury concluded he had not, he says in a release on his website.
“In the end, what resonated with the jury is that drones are an emerging technology that should be embraced, not stifled,” says Jones. “As long as we all fly responsibly, we can all share the airspace together – private citizens, commercial businesses and government agencies alike.”
“All along, I’ve maintained that I would never do anything to put a fellow aviator in harm’s way, so this verdict validates that,” adds Chappell. “And now that the judge has ordered the city to return my drone, I can continue my filmmaking.”