Drones and My Privacy: What Can I Do About It?

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By: Bill Henry
PublishedJun 5, 2019
4 minute read

Image of a drone flying in a public space

If you’ve ever looked around for a large swarm of bees or a chainsaw coming your way but don’t see anything, you’ve likely heard a drone. It’s an electric buzzing sound that for some folks has a resounding note of “privacy invasion.”

Colorado law does not regulate drones. The Federal Aviation Administration does, but the FAA rules focus on airports and the safety of flying passengers. The regulations don’t delve into what you can do when you feel your personal space is compromised.

With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look at some potential remedies you can take if you feel your privacy is being overrun by a flying machine. Hint, it doesn’t include getting out your shotgun.

I’m outside and a drone flew over my yard. I don’t want it taking pictures of me. What can I do?

Honestly, probably a whole lot of nothing. There’s something called expectation of privacy. If you are walking down the street or having a picnic in a park, there’s no real expectation of privacy. You’re in public. Just like a TV cameraman can shoot video of you, so can a drone when you’re in that public space. The same goes for your front and back yards.

If someone from the sidewalk can see you plain as day sitting on your lawn or barbecuing hamburgers, you can’t really say they’re infringing on your privacy.

But what if they’re listening to and recording my private conversation?

Now you’re on to something. Drones can capture both video and audio. When a drone intentionally records your private conversation without your consent, that might be a crime.

Let’s say you’re sitting on a park bench talking on your cell phone. You have a reasonable expectation of privacy on that call. Same goes for conversations at your home. If someone knowingly records your private conversation and you have no idea they’re doing it, that may be deemed eavesdropping. That’s a class 1 misdemeanor here in Colorado. (C.R.S. 189-304)

I was sitting on my couch and a drone was “staring” into my home through the window! Is that legal?

Well, there’s nothing on the books about drones peering into windows. So you’ll have to apply other laws. This particular use of the drone could be argued as trespassing. You could argue that the drone is on your property and was manipulating its camera into your home. In the spirit of the law, that’s trespassing.

But remember, there’s nothing in the state’s trespassing law that addresses drones on private property.

Every time I leave my house to go for a run, sunbathe in my yard, or walk to the local market, there’s a drone following me. This has happened more than once! Can this really be OK?

This is very creepy indeed, and, no, most people would say this is not reasonable use of a drone. In this instance, you may have a case for stalking or harassment. The harassment law is very vague, but repeatedly following someone around in public is considered harassment in Colorado. This could be just one instance. Stalking, on the other hand, requires a pattern of behavior.

Hovering above your yard once would neither be considered harassment nor stalking.

My neighbor dive bombed my kid with their drone. He didn’t get hurt, but he was really scared. I want to file charges. Can I?

Well, you might have a case for an assault or menacing charge.

In this particular example, the drone would have to have been used to intentionally scare your child. Even though assault may conjure up images of a bad physical beating, one does not have to be physically injured to have been assaulted. Intentionally doing something to annoy or alarm someone is considered assault.

Assault and menacing are either misdemeanors or felonies in Colorado.

So can I shoot this thing down or what?

We strongly discourage you from whipping out your shotgun and shooting a drone out of the sky.

First, the Federal Aviation Administration considers a drone to be an aircraft.

Under Title 18 United States Code 32, it is a federal crime to damagedestroydisable, or wreck an aircraft. The penalty for violating 18 U.S.C. 32 is up to 20 years in prison.

Second, discharging a firearm could be considered excessive and illegal under certain circumstances.

A judge may not be very impressed with your reaction to a drone that is not physically threatening you, your loved one, or your property.

In Colorado, you’re allowed to use physical force to defend property and premises. When it comes to property (real estate, a building, etc.) the law only mentions a potential trespasser or criminal – a person, not an aircraft operated by a person.

But, to cover all our bases, you can only use deadly force (let’s say your shotgun) to defend yourself or to prevent first-degree arson. (C.R.S. 18-1-705 and 18-1-706)

So, unless a drone tries to set fire to your property or threatens you with serious bodily harm or death, we do not recommend shooting it down.

Finally, you could be sued. The drone owner could sue you for destroying their property.

Whether they’d win their lawsuit is another thing. But, you would have to spend money and time defending yourself.

As long as you or your family are not in immediate danger, shooting down the pesky drone may not be worth all the risk.

What if I try to disable or “jam” it?!

No, we wouldn’t recommend doing that either.

You see, there’s a federal regulatory agency called the Federal Communications Commission, and it doesn’t like folks messing around with radio transmissions.

Guess what? Drones use radio signals to operate.

“Jamming” devices are illegal. Per the FCC, “operation of a jammer in the United States may subject you to substantial monetary penalties, seizure of the unlawful equipment, and criminal sanctions including imprisonment.”

What if I try to seize the drone?!

Well, you could. But we cannot say whether capturing the drone is within your rights.

Devices like net guns and net launchers are not illegal to own. But the questions we’d recommend asking before deploying a net to seize a drone are, “Is this an illegal drone? Is it flying in a prohibited space?”

If the answer to either of these questions is no, you may reconsider trying to take control of the drone. After all, a drone is someone else’s property. As long as it isn’t breaking any laws, such as flying over a restricted area or intentionally dive bombing your child, you could potentially face your own charges.

You also don’t want to risk damaging someone else’s property as long as there are no substantial threats.

So what can I do?

Talk to the Drone Owner – If you know who the drone belongs to, and you feel safe, you could begin with a conversation. If the owner is a neighbor, they may be open to your request for privacy. They may not have even known they are bothering you.

Log the Disturbances – If you feel like someone is using their drone in inappropriate ways, we recommend you document the behavior.

  • Take pictures of the drone
  • Jot down dates, times, and what happened

Drones are supposed to have a traceable registration number that identifies the owner. If you’re able to get that information, your case is in a better position.

Contact the Police – If you believe a drone is being used illegally or if it is being flown in a manner that could injure you or damage your property, call the local authorities. You could report the incident(s) to the FAA, but many times you’ll be asked to reach out to local law enforcement.

File a Lawsuit – If the drone owner continues to fly it so close to your house that it appears to be “peering” into your window, you may have a private nuisance claim.

The attorneys at Robinson & Henry, P.C. may be able to assist you with a civil case.

Contact us at (303) 688-0944 to schedule an assessment.

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