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Drone Slayer Gets Away with Shooting a Drone

Lawyers say the case is a big missed opportunity to clarify drone law

March 28, 2017

A federal court dismissed a lawsuit against William Merideth, a Kentucky man who began calling himself “Drone Slayer” after shooting down a drone in 2015. Though the ruling is a win for the Drone Slayer, legal experts say it leaves the state of drone law confused and unsettled.

“We respect the judge’s decision, but from our point of view, this is a missed opportunity to have some clarity on the boundaries between private property and trespass,” says James Mackler, attorney who represented the drone pilot in this case.  “It is always better if we can have legal clarity, for law enforcement, drone pilots, home owners, hobbyists, and drone makers.”

Meredith and his supporters argued that the drone was trespassing on his property, and shooting the drone out of the sky with a shotgun was a form of self-defense. However, Mackler argued that David Boggs (the drone pilot) posed no threat to Merideth because Boggs was flying his drone above 200 feet, not directly over Merideth’s property, and had focused the drone’s camera on the horizon, not at Merideth’s property.

Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the Drone Slayer and he began celebrating his win. (Yes, Merideth created a Facebook account dedicated to his Drone Slayer persona.)

No clarity here

The opinion, dated March 21, found that the suit should not be in federal court. The judge wrote that even though unmanned aircraft are subject to federal regulation, the FAA has failed to enforce any such regulations in this case.

"FAA regulations, at most, would constitute ancillary issues in this case, in which the heart of Boggs’ claim is one for damage to his unmanned aircraft under Kentucky state law," wrote Thomas Russell, senior United States district judge.

Mackler is considering whether to appeal the case to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or possibly to the FAA. The heart of the issue is that the FAA asserts that drones are “aircraft” for all purposes under the statutes and rules that apply to manned aircraft. That was the point of the case Huerta v. Pirker, which found that the FAA must regulate drones in the same way as manned aircraft.

“If you take that logic to the next step, what happens when someone shoots down a drone? Haven’t they just shot down an aircraft?” asks Steven Hogan, attorney and host of the Drone Law Today podcast.

Hogan and Mackler both note that unless there is a federal remedy for such conflicts, drone pilots and property owners will have to settle such dispute on a state-by-state basis. In sidestepping this case, the court noted that shooting down a drone is a federal issue, but left it up to state courts to mediate. Even though the FAA asserts that shooting down a drone is a felony, it has failed to bring an action in this and other cases, leaving drone pilots with few protections.

“This was a chance for a federal judge to rule, as a matter of law, that shooting down a drone is legally the same as shooting down a 747,” says Hogan.  “The missed opportunity is that we still have ambiguity about whether the FAA is correct in calling drones “aircraft” that are subject to federal aviation regulations.”

But for those with a broad view of privacy rights, the case is a win for individual freedoms. Or, as Merideth wrote on his Facebook page recently, "... all the BUTTHURT drone owners are losing there [sic] minds. I LOVE IT !LMAO".

For more on this case and other drone shooting events, see story “In the Crosshairs” in the March/April 2017 issue of Drone360. You can also read the full opinion here.
Featured image: pixabay/sluehr3g