Feds Prosecute Drone Pilot for Mid-Air Collision (U.S. v Hernandez)

Feds Prosecute Drone Pilot for Mid-Air Collision (U.S. v Hernandez)

A copy of the criminal complaint is located here.

On Wednesday, a federal complaint was filed in the Central Federal District Court of California charging Andrew Hernandez with unsafe operation of an unmanned aircraft.

It alleges that around 12:35 a.m. a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter arrived in response to a request for air support by officers investigating a burglary at a pharmacy.

While hovering, an Officer Lomax observed from the helicopter what appeared to be a “drone and pulled the helicopter up in an attempt to put the helicopter out of the drone’s flight path. Despite Officer Lomax’s efforts to avoid the drone, the drone struck the bottom of the LAPD helicopter.”

The helicopter initiated an emergency landing by flying over to LAPD Hooper Heliport. After landing, Officer Lomax “observed damage to the helicopter’s nose, antenna, and the bottom cowlings.”

Officers interviewed a witness who lived near the pharmacy who indicated that the residents of a nearby house flew drones frequently. A pull of DMV records indicated the defendant lived at the house indicated by the witness.

Officers around the pharmacy located portions of the drone and found a serial number on one of the portions. A warrant was obtained to search the drone’s camera and SD card. On it they found among other pictures a picture of the suspect holding a drone controller near the license plate on the vehicle registered to him.

A warrant was obtained to search the suspect’s house. After Miranda warnings were given, the defendant told officers he heard a helicopter and “was curious, got his drone, and flew his drone to see what was going on. . . . He stated that it [was] hard to see the drone at night, but that he recalled seeing the drone’s green light facing him as it was ascending.” He looked down for a couple seconds at the drone controller and as he “looked up again at his drone, he saw the drone being ‘smacked’ by the helicopter, which was hovering.”

The digital evidence led a trail back to the defendant. And before some drone pilot thinks this is unlikely to happen to them, consider 14 CFR 107.7(b) which says, the drone pilot “must, upon request, allow the [FAA] to make any test or inspection of the small unmanned aircraft system[.]”

18 USC Section 39B(a)(2) makes it a crime for any person who operates an unmanned aircraft and “Recklessly interferes with, or disrupts the operation of, an aircraft carrying 1 or more occupants operating in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, in a manner that poses an imminent safety hazard to such occupants[.]” A violation shall be punished by a fine and/or imprisonment for not more than 1 year; however, if the person causes serious bodily injury or death during the commission of an offense, they can be fined and/or imprisoned for a term of up to 10 years.

The Department of Justice has been stepping up efforts in dealing with drones:

  • This year the DOJ has announced filing charges against two drone pilots who flew their drones in flight restrictions in Oregon.
  • The DOJ also announced they filed charges against a drone pilot in Miami who flew in flight restrictions during the Super Bowl.
  • In April, 2020, the Attorney General put out some counter UAS guidance which requires authorized FBI personnel to be “properly trained on the use of the technology or equipment and on their responsibilities under this Guidance.” The criminal complaint gives us more info regarding the FBI’s counter UAS efforts because in the complaint it stated that the FBI special agent involved in this case has since July 2020 “been a member of the newly-formed FBI Wildland Fire Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (“CUAS”) Team, for which [he] received training specific to drones.”

As I’ve told people multiple times, make sure you are flying lawfully all the time, even when people are not around, because your flight logs and pictures could cause you problems. Just look at the defendant in this case who had a selfie picture on the drone’s SD card of him holding the drone controller and standing next to a vehicle registered to him.

I predict we will see more and more of these types of investigations happening where law enforcement will use pictures and flight logs to try and determine certain facts and who is the suspect.

The big take-away from this case is: any pictures you take, can and will be held against you.

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Jonathan Rupprecht

Jonathan is an aviation attorney who focuses on unmanned aircraft. He holds an FAA Commercial Pilot certificate and is also an FAA certified Flight Instructor.