Ballard Spahr scored a decisive victory on behalf of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) community when a Los Angeles jury returned a unanimous "not guilty" verdict in what is thought to be the first U.S. case to go to trial on a drone-specific criminal charge. In this highly publicized case, Arvel Chappell III, a filmmaker, aerospace engineer, and aviation enthusiast, was accused of violating the City of Los Angeles' newly enacted "anti-drone" ordinance, which purports to impose municipal restrictions on UAS flight and can potentially subject violators to imprisonment.
Mr. Chappell was the first person prosecuted under the ordinance. Ironically, at the time he was charged, Mr. Chappell was working on his latest film—Compton: The Antwon Ross Story—the fictional story of an African American teen who turns to aviation as a way to escape his crime-ridden neighborhood.
The case began when Mr. Chappell was charged with violating provisions of the City of Los Angeles’ UAS ordinance, which attempted to regulate drone operation within city limits—regardless of whether the city’s municipal rules were inconsistent with those proposed by the federal government (namely, the Federal Aviation Administration). Early in the case, Ballard Spahr brought a constitutional challenge against the provisions of the city ordinance under which Mr. Chappell was charged, arguing that they were preempted by federal law. In response, the government dismissed all charges.
But rather than dismiss the case and move on, the government filed a new charge under the same ordinance, this time alleging that Mr. Chappell operated his UAS in a "careless and reckless" manner, a standard that is defined by federal law. The government contended that Mr. Chappell's drone operation interfered with the flight of a police helicopter. Although the government's "careless and reckless" charge was clearly designed as to end-run the federal preemption argument, Ballard Spahr was unwavering in its fight to protect the rapidly growing civilian drone industry. We took the case to trial and won, vindicating Mr. Chappell and offering increased protections for the wider UAS community.
"In the end, what resonated with the jury is that drones are an emerging technology that should be embraced, not stifled," said Terrence Jones, the Los Angeles-based Ballard Spahr attorney who handled the case. "As long as we all fly responsibly, we can all share the airspace—private citizens, commercial businesses, and law enforcement agencies."
This verdict was significant in light of the growing popularity of commercial and recreational drone use. Currently, the retail, shipping, aerospace, and filmmaking industries, among others, are grappling with a patchwork of state and local laws regulating UAS that are being passed throughout the country. The verdict was also particularly timely: it was rendered on the same day that the FAA released its highly-anticipated final rules on the operation of small UAS for routine commercial use (Part 107).