Why Shooting a Drone is NOT a Federal Crime Under 18 USC 32

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In this recent interview on AV News, I explain that contrary to FAA statements and popular belief, it is not a federal crime to shoot down a drone under 18 USC 32. See arstechnica article on the Tennessee drone shooting.

I corresponded with the author of that arstechnica article to point out that it is not a federal crime under 18 USC 32 because of the technical use of the word ‘aircraft’ in that statute and its legal definition being different than the FAA legal definition in their regulations that includes UAVs/drones.

I realize that most quoted drone law scholars have publicly stated that it is a federal crime to shoot down a drone. I respectfully disagree with them.

The reason FAA hasn’t charged anyone is that they can’t. 18 USC 32 applies only to ‘aircraft in flight’ under 49 USC 46501 – which makes reference to the doors being closed – which is not possible with UAVs – they are unmanned and have no doors.

Further, the entire statute in 18 USC 32 was an implementation of the Montreal Convention in 1971 which was an anti-terrorism treaty arising out of a rash of aircraft hijackings and bombings in the late 1960s and 1970. It would stretch the statute beyond the bounds of due process to base criminal felony charges for shooting down a drone.

FAA doesn’t charge crimes, it’s the US Attorney that charges crimes. The US Attorney won’t charge for shooting down a drone under the ‘Special Aircraft Jurisdiction of the United States‘ which is what the crimes referenced in 18 USC 32 are based on. Because drones don’t have doors that shut after boarding, that law just doesn’t apply.

FAA has civil not criminal authority and jurisdiction – that’s why they haven’t charged it – and they haven’t made any statement that it’s actually a crime compared to a violation of their rules – subject to fines yes but not prison.

This does not mean the FAA is unable to levy fines for shooting at the drone – they could levy a $10,000 fine on someone; and also it doesn’t mean the FAA can’t define ‘reckless flying’ in a way that includes luring your neighbor into shooting your drone down.

Perhaps flying a noisy drone around your neighbor’s house on Easter Sunday would become the ‘last straw’ and lead to your drone getting shot down as was the case of the Inspire 2 shot down in Tennessee.

The drone pilot would need evidence so could probably fly a decoy drone and get someone to fly another drone to film the decoy drone being shot down. Then with that evidence, the drone pilot would have grounds to seek some legal action. Until then it’s he said/she said.

This discussion only focuses on federal law. It does not include the vast array of state and local gun laws that vary so much from state to state and even county to county sometimes.

It is typically unlawful to discharge a firearm within several hundred yards of a structure, roadway, and in towns, urban areas, residential areas, etc. It is also usually unlawful to discharge a firearm or brandish it in public in many places. So there are potentials for local prosecutions but not federal.

And that should answer the question of the Tennessee drone pilot as to why there has been no federal prosecutions.

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Why Shooting a Drone is NOT a Federal Crime Under 18 USC 32

May 13, 2017

Click Here To Watch Video In this recent interview on AV News, I explain that contrary to FAA statements and popular belief, it is not a federal crime to shoot down a drone under 18 USC 32. See arstec ...

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