Drone dispute reaches courtroom
FRONT ROYAL – On Aug. 10, Greg Harold launched a drone helicopter from his driveway high into the sky, over his neighbors’ property and into uncharted legal territory.
The neighbors, Skye Ferguson and his wife, Carolina Carver, didn’t appreciate the sight of the drone passing over their property. Skye Ferguson had met with Harold about the over flights before and told him to cut it out or risk having the drone shot out of the sky.
The Aug. 10 flight led Ferguson and Carver to talk with attorneys and call the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. A few days later, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Anna Hammond charged Harold with entering the Ferguson-Carver property for the purpose of damaging it or causing harm, a misdemeanor.
On the court docket, the case appeared to be an ordinary trespassing dispute between neighbors, but it was something more. A conflict over the legal rights of drone pilots had landed in a Warren County courtroom for the first time.
The ensuing trial ended recently with Warren County General District Court Judge W. Dale Houff finding Harold guilty. Houff imposed no jail or fine on Harold but ordered him not to fly a drone over the Ferguson-Carver property or to photograph them on their property. If a year passes with no further conflict, the case will be dismissed.
Ferguson and Carver were relieved at the outcome. Harold said he will abide by the judge’s order, but he still questions the legal reasoning behind the outcome.
He can’t understand why his over flights kicked up such a fuss.
“It’s really just a helicopter,” Harold said. “They think I have the ability to spy in their windows, and that’s really not the case.”
Carolina Carver says the drone flights were an exercise in intimidation and harassment by Harold. She and her husband settled into their home in 2013 and started a farmette – two horses, six chickens and three alpacas.
The drone flights over their more than 15 acres unsettled the animals, Carver said. Moreover, she was concerned that photos and videos of her and the couple’s children could be taken from the air and find their way online.
“I said to myself, ‘that’s invasion of privacy,'” Carver said. “That’s a Peeping Tom.”
Drone regulation rests mostly with the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency announced recently it intends to require more of the unmanned aircraft to be registered after increasing reports of their appearance around manned airplanes, major sporting events and crews attempting to suppress wildfires.
But the impending new regulations are unlikely to apply to small, lightweight quad copters flown for recreational purposes by owners like Harold. Any crackdown is also complicated by the difficulty in following flying drones back to their owners’ landing pads.
Carver and Ferguson said they chalked up the first drone flights over their property to a juvenile prankster with an expensive toy. But the flights continued.
“We’re not talking five or six times,” Ferguson said. “We’re talking somewhere between 50 to 100 times.”
After following one of the flights back to Harold’s residence, Ferguson warned his neighbor that if he saw the drone “hovering over my children again, I will take it out of the air.”
A criminal complaint against Harold filed by deputy Raymond Hayden of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office describes the conflict over the drone flights as “an ongoing issue.”
“The homeowners of said property provided me with video of the drone flying around their home,” Hayden wrote, adding that the aircraft “daily trespasses over said property.”
The state law under which Harold was convicted is a misdemeanor formally titled “entering property of another for purpose of damaging it, etc.” It makes no mention of aircraft or airspace.
It states in part: “It shall be unlawful for any person to enter the land, dwelling, outhouse, or any other building of another for the purpose of damaging such property or any other contents thereof or in any manner to interfere with the rights of the owner, user or the occupant thereof to use such property free from interference.”
Harold, who works as a senior project manager at a construction management firm, said he didn’t intend to disturb the Carver-Ferguson household. He said he paid about $3,000 for his drone, which he stores in a container about the size and shape of a suitcase.
“It’s really my escape,” Harold said of his drone hobby. “It allows me not to focus on the work and the day-to-day pressures we all face.”
Harold’s video camera-equipped drone recorded real time data of the offending flight. It shows the aircraft passing over the Carver-Ferguson property at an altitude of 216 feet and a speed of 31 mph. Harold said the flight over his neighbors’ property lasted about 6 seconds.
Ferguson, a marine engineer whose company flies drones, disputed Harold’s data.
“We find oil on the ocean with them,” Ferguson said of drones, adding that the technology used to compile flight data is unreliable and frequently gives inaccurate altitude readings.
FAA regulations allow recreational drone pilots to fly to a maximum altitude of 400 feet. Harold said there is no minimum altitude for such flights.
Harold contends his conviction means that he could still be considered trespassing above neighboring airspace, even if the drone he is flying remains well above 400 feet.
“If I wanted to break FAA rules … I could fly at 800 feet and still be deemed a trespasser under my previous case,” Harold wrote in an email. “Flying at 800 feet is certainly not an intrusion or interference on one’s property or airspace. Of course, I would be dealing with a whole new set of consequences, but in the eyes of the general district court, I have still committed trespass by proxy.”
Carver and Ferguson praised Houff for his decision and Hammond and Hayden for their dogged research into a murky, evolving area of the law.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have won the case,” Carver said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org