Trying to avoid the sweltering heat, “Uncle Jesse” Duke was in the garage working on his moonshine operation when he heard a loud shriek in the backyard. He ran to the back to find his niece, Daisy, sunbathing by the pool. Daisy shouted, “That drone keeps hovering over the pool area looking toward me. Do something about it Uncle Jesse!” Uncle Jesse quickly ran back to the garage, grabbed his trusty shotgun, and blew the drone out of the sky. An hour later Sheriff Coltrane showed up at Jesse’s house and asked, “Jesse, did you shoot a drone?” Jesse responded, “You’re durn right I did.” Sheriff Coltrane replied, “Well Jesse, that was Boss Hogg’s $2,000 drone you destroyed. I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to arrest you.” Jesse said, “I didn’t commit no crime Sheriff. It’s my American right to defend my property.” Is Jesse right?
Can You Lawfully Shoot Down a Drone over Your Property?
Two reported cases in New Jersey and Kentucky deal with shooting drones flying over private property. Both times the shooters were charged with criminal mischief and related misdemeanors. As a starting point, your homeowner’s property is both the dirt and your improvements, and also a reasonable amount of airspace necessary to utilize your property. While you can’t complain that the American Airlines flight at 30,000 feet is trespassing on your property, a drone that’s only 200 feet off the ground…? Well, that’s probably a different story…
Earlier Tilting articles mentioned that each state has a “castle doctrine.” Although it varies by state, the “Castle Doctrine” generally allows homeowners to protect themselves, and in some cases their property, with force. Beyond the “Castle Doctrine” Texas has another law that permits a property owner to use “force” when the property owner reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent a trespass on their land. Using that Texas statute, the conduct may be justified and criminal liability may be avoided where the homeowner used “deadly force” (i.e., a gun) to shoot down the drone.
What about civil liability?
The homeowner’s action may also be justified against civil liability if the homeowner can prove: (1) the trespassing Drone was not privileged to be above the homeowner’s property (such as to avoid an emergency); (2) the homeowner reasonably believed the trespass by the Drone can only be prevented or terminated by the force used; and (3) the homeowner either requested the trespass cease, or reasonably believed that request would be useless or that substantial harm would be done before the request can be made. But there is no clear cut answer at this time, and these defenses would be decided by a court or jury.
Tilting the Scales in Your Favor
While no one wants their privacy intruded upon, we do not recommend shooting a drone out of the sky. While you might have good legal arguments to justify your actions – and probably have a jury’s sympathy – it will still be a costly process, particularly when you may be one of the first cases of this kind in the state. Obviously, your liability exposure is compounded if you happen to miss the drone and hit another person or their property.
Having said that the drone owner does not necessarily get away scot-free. In 2013 the Texas Legislature passed a law that creates a private cause of action against the drone owner or user for using a drone to capture an image of the property owner (or tenant) or their property and allows the property owner to recover $5,000 for all of the images captured during each trespass, as well as court costs and attorney’s fees. The drone owner or user may also be liable to the homeowner for trespassing and for one of the torts of invasion of privacy (check out our other article this month “Can You Videotape Someone Else’s Conversation”). Next month we’ll explore this issue from the drone owner’s perspective, including federal regulations and recommendations for flying unmanned drones.