Unanimous “Not Guilty” Verdict in Los Angeles’ First Criminal Drone Use Trial


A jury returned a unanimous “not guilty” verdict yesterday in favor of Arvel Chappell III, the first person charged under the City of Los Angeles’ recently enacted anti-drone ordinance, in what was the first case to go to trial on a drone-specific criminal charge.

Given the increasing popularity of civilian and commercial drone use, Chappell’s cause gained significant support among those in the filmmaking industry, the aerospace industry, as well as the retail and shipping industries—all of which want local ordinances set aside so that the federal government can continue to develop national regulations that safely incorporate drone technologies into people’s day-to-day existence.

The verdict was particularly significant because it came on the same day that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released long-anticipated rules that now allow the commercial use of small drones without special permission.

“All along, I’ve maintained that I would never do anything to put a fellow aviator in harm’s way, so this verdict validates that,” said Chappell, a filmmaker and aerospace engineer.  “And now that the judge has ordered the City to return my drone, I can continue my filmmaking,” Chappell added.  Ironically, Chappell’s most recent film—Compton: The Antwon Ross Story—is the story of a young African American male who turns to aviation as a means of avoiding getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

The jury’s “not guilty” verdict brings to a close a long legal battle between Chappell and the City of Los Angeles, during which Chappell challenged the constitutionality of the municipal charges against him as “preempted” by federal law, which the U.S. Supreme Court deems “the Supreme Law of the Land.”  That challenge resulted in a dismissal of many of the charges against Chappell, leaving to a jury only the question of whether he operated his drone in a “careless or reckless” manner.  The jury concluded he had not.

“In the end, what resonated with the jury is that drones are an emerging technology that should be embraced not stifled,” said Terrence Jones, Chappell’s attorney, a former federal prosecutor now with the law firm of Ballard Spahr LLP. “As long as we all fly responsibly, we can all share the airspace together—private citizens, commercial businesses, and government agencies alike,” Jones added.