Two LA drone pilots face fines and possible imprisonment

Two men charged with flying drones near an airport and hospital heliports in Los Angeles could be looking at fines and jail time.

They’ll be the first to be charged under a new city ordinance restricting drone operation, City Attorney Mike Feuer announced on Wednesday.

Michael Ponce, 20, and Arvel Chappell, 35, were each charged with two criminal counts stemming from two separate incidents including allegedly operating a drone within 5 miles of an airport without permission and allegedly operating the device more than 400 feet above ground level.

Chappell was also charged with an additional count of operating a drone at night.

On December 12, 2015, Chappell’s drone allegedly forced a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) air unit to change its landing path when he flew it within a quarter-mile of the Hooper Heliport in downtown Los Angeles.

Days earlier, on December 9, 2015, an LAPD airship allegedly spotted a drone, operated by Ponce, flying higher than 400 feet above Griffith Park and within three miles of a number of hospital heliports.

Police seized the drone and cited Ponce.

If convicted, the two could face up to six months in jail and a $1000 fine.

The Los Angeles City Council, fed up with having to deal with pesky drones, passed the new ordinance in October.

It makes it a misdemeanor to operate a drone more than 500 feet up, within 5 miles of an airport without permission, or within 25 feet of another person.

The ordinance closely resembles the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) civilian drone flight regulations, but it adds imprisonment as a possible penalty.

Prior to passage of the new ordinance, offenders who violated the federal rules faced fines and the loss of their drone and permission to fly. They were rarely threatened with jail time.

The City Attorney’s office says that it’s previously prosecuted drone operators under existing laws including trespassing for flying over certain areas and obstructing police activity.

There’s been a surge in incidents of misbehaving drones, and California has certainly seen its share.

In August, an LAPD helicopter had to take evasive action to avoid a hobby drone that flew within 50 feet. And, during a harrowing wildfire fighting season, California also saw multiple instances of drones flying into restricted areas and diverting firefighting planes.

California’s lawmakers have repeatedly tried to pass bills to deal with drone operators who fly their gadgets recklessly.

One bill would have exonerated emergency workers who disabled or damaged unmanned unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in emergency situations.

Another law, nixed by the governor, would have instituted drone no-fly zones.

In contrast with those failed legislative attempts to hold drone operators accountable for misdeeds, Los Angeles passed its new ordinance on a unanimous vote.

Ponce and Chappell are the first to be charged, but they likely won’t be the last, judging by what Feuer had to say:

We’ll continue to use our new city law to hold drone operators accountable and keep our residents safe.

Image of drone and operator courtesy of LU YAO /