Florida deputies entered a man’s home without permission and forced him to delete footage of a crime scene he had recorded on his drone Monday evening.
Aaron Bitler said he had launched his remote controlled quadcopter from his Orlando home after noticing several Orange County sheriff’s deputies in his neighborhood, investigating a burglary across the street.
But it wasn’t long before a sheriff’s helicopter flying overhead began shining a light on him. Within seconds, he was surrounded by a group of deputies who began accusing him of interfering with their investigation, ordering him back inside his home.
Feeling intimidated, he landed his drone and took it back inside his home, but two deputies followed him inside and ordered him to delete the footage.
And that is illegal under any circumstance.
Aaron Bitler said he flies his drone every day. He thought it was normal to send it up in the air when he saw deputies in his neighborhood Monday night.
“I’m bringing it up and I’m trying to see what the police (are) looking at,” Bitler said. “I want to make sure there is no one coming near us or our property.”
Bitler said it was just a few minutes after his drone was about 200 feet high when he noticed the Orange County Sheriff’s Office’s helicopter light was shining down on him.
“I have a whole bunch of deputies in front of me,” Bitler said, recalling the incident. “They hassle me, tell me I’m hindering an investigation (and) then they make me take my drone inside. Then two officers came inside and made me delete my video.”
Bitler said he deleted the video because he didn’t want to be arrested.
A spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Jane Watrel, tried to justify the invasive and illegal actions of deputies by accusing Bitler of violating Federal Aviation Administration rules that forbid the flying of drones near airports.
But that excuse came several hours after Watrel initially tried to justify the actions by saying Bitler was interfering with their investigation.
“Law enforcement can request someone not to interfere with an investigation and a drone could be that extension of interference and best safety practice,” Watrel said.
Watrel released a further statement Tuesday night:
“We are still trying to determine what happened when the patrol deputy made contact with the drone operator.
“However, there is deep concern over this incident because the drone owner is in clear violation of FAA rules concerning flying drones near airports.”
But the FAA has not cited or fined him for this incident.
Further complicating matters is the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a non-profit organization, which states that drones can be flown within three miles of an airport without prior notice as long as they are kept below 400 feet.
Bitler says he was flying his drone at 200 feet.
Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, provided the following statements in an attempt to clear up the confusion:
Regardless of what Mr. Bitler may have done that was wrong or illegal the police have no right to order him to delete his video. That is his property and such deletions violate his 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure as well as his 14th Amendment right denying him due process (in that it was a destruction of his property).
The quote from the DOJ in the Sharp case is: “There are no circumstances under which the contents of a camera or recording device should be deleted or destroyed.”
If anything the police might have considered the video as evidence of his crime and therefore should have wanted to preserve it.
If he was flying for his own enjoyment as a “hobbyist” that is allowed but he cannot use the sUAS for any commercial purposes without permission from the FAA (either a Certificate of Authorization or a Section 33 Exemption).
That said even as a hobbyist, according to the AMA, he shall “not operate in a careless or reckless manner and yield the right of way to all human-carrying aircraft.” He also may not “fly higher than approximately 400 feet above ground level within three (3) miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator.”
According to the FAA, he shall make sure “the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and when flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control
tower . . . with prior notice of the operation . . . .”
The AMA rules are what hobbyists are been abiding by for more than 25 years. Neither one talks about prior approval of air traffic control only prior notice to them. Again AMA says “400 feet above ground level within three (3) miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator.”
And FAA: when flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower . . . with prior notice of the operation . . . .” but notice they don’t specify an altitude. So to be safe anyone flying an sUAS should notify the tower and ATC beforehand if they plan to operate within 5 miles of an airport.
To complicate things you do need permission to operate an sUAS around certain designated airspace such as Class B.
Osterreicher is referring to the statement of interest released by the Department of Justice in 2012 that made it clear that law enforcement officers are forbidden to force citizens to delete footage under any circumstances.
After all, it is not only a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments, but destruction of evidence as well.
Or as Osterreicher explained it, “deleting images violates the 1st Amendment as an egregious form of prior restraint.”
But when it comes to recording in public, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office has proven not to have much respect for the rights of citizens.
Nevertheless, it was only two years ago when Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings announced he would spend $50,000 on two drones, a small price to pay, he said, “if we save one human life.”
Check out PINAC’s 2015 Guide to Upcoming Regulations for more information on what the FAA has in store for drone regulation this year.