photograph of Jonathan Rupprecht
Jonathan Rupprecht

None of the regulations that are exempted in a typical Section 333 exemption were cited.

Recently released documents from a FOIA request [Freedom Of Information Act] reveal a total of 23 FAA enforcement actions against drone operators. Here are the important take-aways I’ve found with the cases that have been released via Jason’s [Koebler] great work over
at Motherboard.

Every one of the flights could have been cited with many more violations of the regulations. The FAA left a lot on the table with charges.Each flight should have been a $5,500 fine at a minimum. Why? With a typical drone operator, at least 5 regulations are usually being violated in each flight.

It appears that the FAA’s prosecutors were either disorganized as to how to fully prosecute these cases or they were too embarrassed to “throw the book” at the drone operator.

No one had a 333 exemption in effect at the time of the flights.

[BUT…] None of the regulations that are exempted in a typical Section 333 exemption were cited. This is a very important point. A 333 would provide a defense to those charges, provided the operator was following the exemption.

So why would anyone get a 333? Because the 333 exemption would keep additional charges from the second list above “off the table*,” provided you were operating under the 333. It would be beneficial as a partial defense.

[*NOTE Jonathan did a nice bit of analysis and prepared two tables, one showing the regulations cited in the charges, the other showing the regulations exempted in a 333. There is no overlap.]

9 of the cases also had some type of arrest or fine under state or local law for the flight.
You can be prosecuted under state/local law as well as federal law at the same time for the same flight. Also, keep in mind that a 333/COA is helpful for getting local law enforcement off your back as they are generally trying to find operators who do not have 333s. A good example of this is with the City of LA’s ordinance. Law enforcement officers were going around asking people if they had a 333 or not. If you didn’t have one, you could be arrested.

Potential Benefits to the Drone Community
The FAA’s lack of enforcement has been the catalyst for many states, counties, cities, and towns enacting some laws governing drones. The release of this information can have a positive effect by showing that the FAA IS doing something. I would suggest giving this article out to any of your elected officials who plan on doing something regarding regulating drones. Tell them to give the FAA time to get “up to speed” on the situation before they pass any laws that will stifle this industry.

I hope this information will be helpful to the drone community. As always, when hiring an attorney, don’t hire a poser, hire an attorney who is a pilot. Fly safe guys.

This is a comprehensive analysis with a lot of charts. This one jumps out at me.
chart of drone law violations
Chart courtesy of Rupprecht Law, PA
Every single one of the 23 drone operators was charged with 91.13a careless or reckless operation. 14 were charged with 91.13b Class B Airspace – flying within five miles of an airport. Which begs at least two conclusions that appear to be supported by the data.
First, as Jonathan points out – not entirely facetiously – “the FAA treats 91.13(a) like bacon, they put it on everything to make it better.”
Or you could conclude that if you don’t act like an idiot and fly around airports scaring people and irritating the local law enforcement representative who has to deal with you, you don’t have a whole lot to worry about.
But you might want to think twice about depending on this kind of fuzzy logic to save your bacon:

“Given that more than a million drones have been sold in the U.S., the fact that only two dozen fines have been levied is surprising and likely reflects the FAA’s lack of resources, rather than a lack of desire.” As time goes on, we can expect to see many more of these enforcement actions to be more fully prosecuted.

UPDATE Just to prove that things do go better with bacon comes this story from Minneapolis – an amateur operator being hit with a $55K fine for you guessed it – 91.13a and 91.13b.



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