Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer says his office has filed two criminal cases against unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operators – the first criminal charges under the city’s new ordinance for drone operations.
According to Feuer, Michael Ponce, 20, and Arvel Chappell, 35, were each charged with two criminal counts stemming from two separate incidents involving allegedly operating a UAS within five miles of an airport without permission and allegedly operating the device in excess of 400 feet above ground level.
Chappell was also charged with one additional count of operating a drone at a time other than during daylight. If convicted, says Feuer, Ponce and Chappell could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
In October, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that would place criminal charges on drone operators who violate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations for civilian UAS, including flying at least five miles away from an airport, keeping the UAS within the visual line of sight and under 400 feet in altitude, giving the right of way to other full-scale aircraft in airspace, and operating only in daylight hours.
“The operation of civil UAS is regulated by the FAA. However, an individual who operates a UAS in a reckless manner in the City of Los Angeles cannot be charged with any crime,” said the original motion, presented in August by Councilmembers Herb J. Wesson and Mitchell Englander. “An ordinance is needed to define the safe operation of model UAS, as well as to prohibit the unsafe use of both model and civil UAS in the city.”
Specifically, regarding these new cases, on Dec. 9, a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) airship allegedly observed Ponce operating a drone higher than 400 feet in altitude and within three miles of a number of hospital heliports. The drone was seized, and Ponce was cited.
On Dec. 12, Chappell was cited by police for allegedly operating a drone in excess of 400 feet and within ¼ mile of Hooper Heliport, the LAPD air support division’s base at Piper Tech in downtown Los Angeles. Allegedly, says Feuer, an air unit coming in to land had to alter its path in order to avoid the UAS. Ground units were notified, and the device was seized.
“While people may think that flying a drone is a minor or victimless crime, the results could be devastating,” says Englander. “We saw firsthand what happened during a major brush fire where drones grounded firefighting helicopters. A single drone can take down a helicopter or an airplane. If drones fly, first responders can’t.”
Feuer adds, “Operating a drone near trafficked airspace places pilots and the public at serious risk. We’ll continue to use our new city law to hold drone operators accountable and keep our residents safe.”
Arraignment for both defendants is scheduled for Feb. 22. Assistant Supervising Attorney Benjamin Karabian is prosecuting the cases.