Lawsuit Filed Over Shot-down Drone Could Set New U.S. Law

The drone model that was shot down (PHOTO CREDIT: DJI)
The drone model that was shot down (PHOTO CREDIT: DJI)

He calls himself the “Drone Slayer.” And William Merideth, who shot down a drone over his Hillview home last summer, says he’d “do it again, with a smile.”

Dismissing criminal charges against him for firing a gun within city limits, a judge said Merideth was within his rights when he took out the $1,800 unmanned aircraft, which Merideth said he feared was peeping on his teenaged daughters on the back porch.

But a lawsuit filed this month by the drone’s owner, John David Boggs, could settle an issue that experts say has never before been addressed by the courts: the conflict between a homeowner’s right to privacy and the federal government’s exclusive sovereignty over the skies.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it has sole authority over the national airspace, while Kentucky law gives landowners the right to use force necessary to prevent trespassing.

The Supreme Court hasn’t addressed the issue since 1946 when it ruled that a North Carolina farmer could assert property rights up to 83 feet in the air — and win compensation for military aircraft that were flying so low they were disturbing his cows and chickens.

But that was long before the advent of drones, which are now used for everything from law enforcement to land surveys, from search and rescue to wildlife tracking. Best Buy offers 50 models just for photo hobbyists, while more than 50 companies produce 155 models in the U.S., with wingspans ranging from 6 inches to 246 feet.

“We can all agree that if Southwest Airlines flies over your backyard at 30,000 feet, you have no right to privacy,” John Villasenor, a visiting law professor at UCLA and a nonresident fellow at the Center for Technology at the Brookings Institution, said. “But what about a drone flying at 3 feet?”

Critics say misusing a drone to spy on a neighbor is no different than climbing a ladder to look into their upstairs window.

Boggs says in his lawsuit that he wasn’t peeping and that he filed his suit Jan. 4 to win “clarity to protect the right to fly responsibly without fear of being shot at.”

Merideth also says he looks forward to the court’s resolution of where private property ends and the open sky begins.

Boggs’ Nashville lawyer, James Mackler, a former Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot who specializes in drone law, says much is at stake, including for companies like Amazon, which plans to deliver packages to customers via drones that would touch down on their lawns.

“If every property owner has a right to take a shot at them, that pretty much ends that business model,” Mackler said.

Boggs asks for damages for his aircraft and for U.S. District Judge David J. Hale to resolve the “boundaries of the airspace surrounding real property, the reasonable expectation of privacy as viewed from the air, and the right to damage or destroy an aircraft in flight.”

The litigation comes as the use of drones, and the potential for disasters proliferates.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Andrew Wolfson