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Drone was hovering over his property, appeared to be filming defendant's daughters; owner confronted him but was not charged

It's a scenario I suggested would happen sooner or later -- someone gets charged with a crime for shooting down a drone.  With the ever increasing armada of government, commercial, and hobbyist unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (aka: "drones"), it seemed only a matter of time before someone would take a gun to an aerial intruder and face a court battle over their actions.  And indeed the day has arrived.

Many readers of my Sept. 2012 piece discussing the potential legal rammifications of shooting down domestic spy drones invading the airspace over their property provoked a lively debate over whether it would truly be feasible to shoot down a drone with a firearm.  As some correctly suggested the most effective strategy for taking down a hovering-near-ground-level flier is a good old fashioned shotgun and a bit of "spray and pray".  Just be prepared to deal with the legal consequences.

A resident of Hillview, Kentucky is facing such consequences head on after he was charged with two felonies for shooting down a drone that was hovering over his backyard.

Bullit County

Bullit County, Kentucky is seen in red. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Hillview is a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky's largest city.  Located in the (somewhat ironically named) Bullit County, the stretch of southwestern suburbs is home to over 8,100 citizens -- including homeowner William Herbert Merideth.  The 47-year-old Hillview resident was out in his backyard on a lazy Sunday evening on July 26, when he and his neighbors noticed a peculiar sight.  A mid-sized drone was hovering along with a video camera attached.  For a time it hovered over his neighbors lawn, but soon it was over his property.

Meredith
William Meredith, a Kentucky homeowner, felt compelled to shoot down the drone after it appeared to be video taping his children and was flying low over his property. [Image Source: WDRB 41]

According to Merideth's version of events, the drone appeared to be training its electronic eye in the sky appeared to be watching his children, including his young girls.  And now it was on his property.  It was at this juncture that Meredith decided the aerial trespasser had gone too far.  He went inside and retrieved his shotgun.  He fired three controlled burst of Number 8 birdshot at the intruder.

The scattershot approach did the trick.  The damaged drone came crashing down.  And that's when things got heated.

In an in-depth interview with a local news station -- WDRB 41 -- Merideth recollects:

Sunday afternoon, the kids – my girls – were out on the back deck, and the neighbors were out in their yard. And they come in and said, 'Dad, there’s a drone out here, flying over everybody’s yard’. Well, I came out and it was down by the neighbor's house, about 10 feet off the ground, looking under their canopy that they’ve got in their back yard. I went and got my shotgun and I said, 'I'm not going to do anything unless it's directly over my property'. Within a minute or so, here it came.

It was hovering over top of my property, and I shot it out of the sky. I didn’t shoot across the road, I didn’t shoot across my neighbor’s fences, I shot directly into the air. Four guys came over to confront me about it, and I happened to be armed, so that changed their minds. They asked me, 'Are you the S-O-B that shot my drone?' and I said, 'Yes I am'. I had my 40 mm Glock on me and they started toward me and I told them, 'If you cross my sidewalk, there's gonna be another shooting.'

He didn’t just fly over. If he had been moving and just kept moving, that would have been one thing – but when he come directly over our heads, and just hovered there, I felt like I had the right. You know, when you’re in your own property, within a six-foot privacy fence, you have the expectation of privacy. We don’t know if he was looking at the girls. We don’t know if he was looking for something to steal. To me, it was the same as trespassing.

Meredith w/ shotgun
Meredith, who bird hunts as a hobby, knows his way around a shotgun and quickly shot down the flier.  But he faced a tense confrontation when the owners showed up.

In a separate interview with Ars Technica he describes in more detail recalling:

[The drone] was just right there.  It was hovering, I would never have shot it if it was flying. When he came down with a video camera right over my back deck, that's not going to work. I know they're neat little vehicles, but one of those uses shouldn’t be flying into people's yards and videotaping.

[The owners showed up] looking for a fight. [One said:] "Are you the son of a bitch that shot my drone?"

[After warning about the Glock], his only comment was that he hoped I had a big checkbook because his drone cost $1,800.

The people that own the drones and the people that hate guns are the only ones that disagree with what I did.

Now, if I’d have had a .22 rifle, I should have gone to jail for that. The diameter of those things are going to come down with enough force to hurt somebody. Number 8 birdshot is not. Number 8 is the size of a pinhead. The bottom line is that it's a right to privacy issue and defending my property issue. It would have been no different had he been standing in my backyard. As Americans, we have a right to defend our rights and property.

I would just like [him] to get some education on his toy and learn to respect the rights of the people.  It's fine and dandy, and I think it's cool there's a camera on it, but just take it to a park or something—he's not a responsible drone owner.

Despite his claim that local law enforcement officials and the local jail clerk agreed with his actions privately, publicly he quickly found himself in a predicament. After deadening the drone and diffusing the tense conflict, the police showed up.  And to his dismay they refused to confiscate the drone's storage, instead opting to return it to the owner.  And they promptly placed him under arrest, booking him into the Bullitt County Detention Center [arrest record].

Number 8 bird shot


shotgun cartridges

Number 8 bird shot -- used to shoot down the drone -- has a small diameter.  It's smaller than a BB pellet.  However, the metal pellets en masse can do some damage.
[Image Source: CactusBush (top); GunnersDen (bottom)]

Meredith complains:

[The police] didn’t confiscate the drone. They gave the drone back to the individuals.  They didn’t take the SIM card out of it…but we’ve got…five houses here that everyone saw it – they saw what happened, including the neighbors that were sitting in their patio when he flew down low enough to see under the patio.

Released on bail, he was later charged with two Class D first degree felonies -- 1st degree wanton endangerment (PDF: Ky. Acts ch. 406, sec. 70 (508.060)) and 1st degree criminal mischief (Ky. Acts ch. 183, sec. 3. (512.020)).  In Kentucky, Class D felonies carry a minimum of 1 year and a maximum sentence of five years (PDF: KRS.532.60).

William Meredith
Meredith was booked into the county jail for his drone shootdown.

When it comes to criminal law, those facing multiple charges on these kinds of low-grade felonies can be handed concurrent (more typical) sentences (where the time served applies to all or several of the sentences simultaneously) or (more rarely) consecutive sentences (where each sentence must be served one after another, summing up).  While there's little chance that Meredith as a well-represented first time offender would face consecutive maximum sentences, he faces a theoretical maximum of 10 years in prison for the charges (for maximum sentences with consecutive sentencing).

According to state laws pages, common Class D felonies in Kentucky include:

This felony includes felonious driving, reckless homicide, use of stolen credit cards that exceeds five hundred dollars but is less than one thousand dollars, stalking in the first degree, and assault in the third degree. 

The charges Meredith stands accused of are somewhat less common, but not that unusual.  Rather it's the case itself here that's truly unusual.

Firing one's gun unsafely does often lead to wanton endangerment charges.  Under the state statute, wanton endangerment is defined as follows:

A person is guilty of wanton endangerment in the first degree when, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, he wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person.

The charge has a lesser misdemeanor equivalent; it is somewhat unsual that the felony be applied.  For an act to be considered "wanton" endangerment, typically a judge or jury must find that:
  • The defendant's actions put others in danger.
  • The actions were committed with an awareness of the risk.
  • The defendant must be shown to have willfully disregarded the risk.
Given the fact that Meredith was a registered gun owner, was on his own property, was reportedly careful to fire so as to keep neighbors and family member out of harm's way, and given that he fired in a controlled enough fashion to shoot down the drone, it's somewhat surprising to see this charge applied in the first place.  Although any time a gun is discharged in a suburban setting (even for seemingly valid reasons), there's the possibility this kind of charge might drop.

DJI Phantom quadcopter
The DJI Phantom quadcopter is perhaps the most popular hobbyist drone.  
It weighs roughly 2.8 lb (1.27 kg). [Image Source: Quadcopters.co.uk]

The criminal mischief charge is along the lines of a mid-grade vandalism type offense.  It is defined as:

A person is guilty of criminal mischief in the first degree when, having no right to do so or any reasonable ground to believe that he has such right, he intentionally or wantonly defaces, destroys or damages any property causing pecuniary loss of $1,000 or more. 

Technically speaking, this charge is perhaps more predictable given the circumstances.  The drone Meredith shot down had a claimed value of $1,800 USD.  The key question will be whether the prosecutor will be able to successfully argue that Meredith "[had] no right" to destroy the drone and "reasonable ground to believe that he has such right."  Given that the drone was on his property, was behaving suspiciously, and appeared to be videotaping his teenage daughter, one might expect that a judge or jury might be hard-pressed to buy that the destruction was unlawful or unreasonable enought to qualify for a felony with serious prison time.

Meredith has a lawyer and plans to not only vigorously defend himself in court, but to take civil counteractions against the owner of the trespassing drone, as well.  He comments to local news station WDRB 41:

There were some words exchanged there about my weapon, and I was open carry — it was completely legal. They took me to jail because I fired the shotgun into the air. They didn’t confiscate the drone. They gave the drone back to the individuals. They didn’t take the SIM card out of it but we’ve got five houses here that everyone saw it – they saw what happened, including the neighbors that were sitting in their patio when he flew down low enough to see under the patio.

We’re not going to let it go. I believe there are rules that need to be put into place and the situation needs to be addressed. We need to have some laws in place to handle these kind of things.

He adds in his Ars Technica interview:

We have a lawyer and there's a court date and then there's going to be a hearing.  It's not going to stop with the two charges against me, which I'm confident that we'll get reduced or get dismissed completely.

The operator of the drone has been identified as David Boggs and he's admant about pressing charges it appears.  He denies he was spying on Meredith's bikini-clad daughter.  Rather, he claims he was filming a friends house and had no interest in Boggs' daughter.

He also disputes several details of Meredith's account such as his statement that seemed to imply that Boggs in his friends arrived in the same car at the crash scene (he says they took three separate cars).  And he adds, "Nobody cussed him."

Boggs has provided video that seems to show the drone flying at 200 feet around the time it was shot down -- a distance general considered to be acceptable.  But by the sound of it that videographic record may be incomplete (or potentially edited), particularly as not only Meredith, but several neighbors as well report the craft flying as below 100 feet, in close sight.  Indeed, it seems somewhat implausible that the defendant could shoot down the craft so quickly if it wwere up as high as the owner claims

Neighbor Kim VanMeter characterizes the drone as low flying and implied it appeared to be videotaping her teenage daughter who was also outside at the time.  She states:

It was just hovering above our house and it stayed for a few moments and then she finally waved and it took off.  I just think you should have privacy in your own backyard.

She characterizes the experience with the camera drone as "creepy" and "weird", according to WDRB 41.

Clearly there's some inconsistencies in the accounts.

Nonetheless, Hillview Police detective Charles McWhirter feels that officers had to take some sort of action against the homeowner for shooting down the drone.  WDRB 41 reports:

Hillview Police detective Charles McWhirter says you can't fire your gun in the city.

"Well, we do have a city ordinance against discharging firearms in the city, but the officer made an arrest for a Kentucky Revised Statute violation," he said.

U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesman Les Dorr told WDRB 41 that shooting at drones was highly hazardous, commenting:

An unmanned aircraft hit by gunfire could crash, causing damage to persons or property on the ground, or it could collide with other objects in the air.

But the FAA spokesperson also adds that drones hovering close to buildings is unlawful and unsafe.  And therein lies the interesting gray area.  While Meredith's behavior could be construed as dangerous, it could alternatively be construed as defense of his property and family.  And the question remains why the police didn't detain the drone operator when neighbors claimed he was flying the drone close to the buildings.  At a minimum it would have seemed wise to collect the footage to verify what exactly he was up to.

bird shot
A man is seen shooting birdshot from a shot gun.
[Image Source: jack_spellingbacon/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)]

No matter how you slice it this will be a precedent setting case, and the first of its kind as far as criminal charges go.  Last year in Modesto, Calif. there was one similar incident with a rural homeowner shooting down a neighbor's drone with a 12 gauge shotgun.  He claims he thought it was a government drone.  No charges were filed, but the neighbor did take the drone killer to small claims court to cover the replacement costs.  He was awared $850 USD.

However, the circumstances were markedly different in that case.  Notably, in that case there was no clear indication the drone was behaving suspicious or flying close to buildings.  And reports seemed to suggest that it was on the neighbors property when it was shot down -- not the firearm owner's.

William Meredith
Meredith plans to countersure, according to reports. [Image Source: WDRB]

Given the different circumstances in the Kentucky incident, and the fact that prosecutors elected to aggressively pursue serious criminal charges, the outcome there is very much anyone's guess.  As I said in my original piece, citizens will inevitably shoot down drone trespassers.  How the law deals with such incidents, though, will likely vary wildly until legislation catches up with the technology.  For now the law is very much unclear of whether it's okay to shoot down low-flying drones on your property.  Thus if you elect to do so -- as Meredith did -- you will have to hope for a favorable judge or jury (and/or hire a good lawyer).

(The model/make of the drone wasn't mentioned in any of the stories but it sounds like it was of the small copter variety.)

Sources: Bullitt County Detention Center [arrest record], WDRB 41, ArsTechnica, via the DailyDot





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