Category Archives: law enforcement

Utah’s New Anti-Drone Law is a Bad Idea Whose Implementation Requires Violation of Federal Communications Law

Part Three in a Series on Federal Preemption – Mark Del Bianco, Special Counsel to Antonelli Law

Utah’s New Anti-Drone Law is a Bad Idea Whose Implementation Requires Violation of Federal Communications Law

This blog post was inspired by a comment on Twitter yesterday that prompted me to read the new Utah anti-drone law, S. 3003, which the governor signed into law this week. Like so much drone-related state and local legislation, the Utah law is well-intentioned but not fully thought through.  In fact, it’s one of the most troubling pieces of legislation I’ve seen in a long time.

In a nutshell, the key part of the law gives the “incident commander” of a “wildfire situation” the authority to “neutralize” an unmanned aircraft (drone) flying within a certain distance of the wildfire.  Neutralize “means to terminate the operation of an unmanned aircraft by: (i) disabling or damaging the unmanned aircraft; (ii) interfering with any portion of the unmanned aircraft system associated with the unmanned aircraft; or (iii) otherwise taking control of the unmanned aircraft or the unmanned aircraft system associated with the unmanned aircraft.”

This Utah law conflicts with a number of federal laws and regulations.  First, if an incident commander were to disable or damage an unmanned aircraft, he or she would be violating 18 U.S.C. § 32, which provides that anyone who “willfully . . . disables . . . any civil aircraft used, operated or employed in interstate, overseas or foreign air commerce . . .  shall be fined . . . or imprisoned not more than twenty years or both.”  To date, neither the FAA nor the U.S. Department of Justice have displayed any desire to prosecute even individuals who admit shooting down drones, so the risk that a Utah state official would be prosecuted under § 32 for disabling a drone may be more theoretical than actual.  But the conflict between state and federal law is real, particularly in light of the U.S. District Court ruling this week confirming that drones are in fact aircraft and the FAA has jurisdiction to regulate them.

Moreover, an incident commander used a jamming device to bring down a drone would be violating federal communications law and might face greater scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission. There is no question that federal preemption exists here.  Unlike the somewhat convoluted preemption situation in the aviation industry, the Communications Act gives the FCC the sole authority to regulate “interstate and foreign commerce in wire and radio communication.” 47 U.S.C. § 151.  The Communications Act’s provisions and the FCC’s jurisdiction “apply to all interstate and foreign communication by wire or radio and all interstate and foreign transmission of energy by radio, which originates and/or is received in the United States . . . .” 47 U.S.C. § 152(b). The federal courts have consistently confirmed that only the FCC has the authority to regulate services that are interstate in nature, or that have mixed interstate and intrastate components. Louisiana Pub. Serv. Comm’n, 476 U.S. 355, 368-369 (1986) and City of New York v. FCC, 486 U.S. 57, 63-64 (1988).

Jamming GPS, cellular or other radio signals used by the drone to navigate and to communicate would be a violation of the Communications Act of 1934.  The FCC has long taken the position that it is illegal for anyone – specifically including the state law enforcement officials – to jam such communications signals.  Take a look at https://www.fcc.gov/general/cell-phone-and-gps-jamming.  For example, Utah and other states have tried for more than six years to get FCC permission to jam cell phones that have been clandestinely smuggled into prisons. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/cff25c89135344acb773c4ec5dbb1837/gop-governors-ask-fcc-address-illegal-prison-cellphones. The FCC has to date refused, and is taking the position that its rules (47 C.F.R. § 2.803) prohibit the manufacture, importation, marketing, sale or operation of such devices within the United States except by federal government agencies that have received an FCC exemption (47 C.F.R. § 2.807).   In the FCC’s view, even owning a device capable of jamming such signals is a violation of the Communications Act, specifically Sections 301, 302(b) and 333.  Its website notes that violations are punishable by fines of up to $112,500 per violation, and could lead to criminal prosecution (including imprisonment) or seizure of the illegal device.

The question is whether the FCC Enforcement Bureau, which has demonstrated increased activity across a wide spectrum of violations over the last couple of years, would see a need to take action to preclude a spate of similar state laws. The Bureau has not hesitated to send warning letters to and impose fines on individuals and entities violating the jamming regulations. See “Recent Enforcement Actions” at https://www.fcc.gov/general/jammer-enforcement. It will be interesting to see if the FCC steps in.

About Attorney Mark Del Bianco 

Attorney Mark Del Bianco is Special Counsel to Antonelli Law’s DSC_2812Drone/UAS Practice Group. Mark has more than three decades of experience representing clients in federal administrative rulemaking, enforcement proceedings, and court reviews at the DOJ, ITC, FCC, FDA, CPSC, and NHTSA. He has litigation experience ranging from state trial courts to case briefs in the United States Supreme Court, and in recent years has litigated the constitutionality of state laws at the intersection of technology and privacy. He also provides transactional and regulatory assistance to a wide array of clients, including fiber networks, satellite service providers, business owners, application developers and cloud services providers.

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Illinois Law Enforcement Drone Report

In accordance with the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act [725 ILCS 167], the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority is mandated to publish on its publicly available website on July 1 of every year if a law enforcement agency owns one or more drones.

Here are the results, which either shows that Illinois law enforcement agencies are not complying with the new law, or it appears that Illinois is far from being on the cutting edge of utilizing UAS in law enforcement, despite having Google and 1871 as players on its turf. For example, see this YouTube Video showing a Chicago Police Department RC helicopter which clearly seems to fall under the drone reporting requirement

Illinois Drone Report July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2014 

Agency Champaign County Sheriff’s Office
Number of Drones 1
Date of Purchase March 19, 2008
Model RP Flight Systems-Spectra Flying Wing
Status Inoperative

Agency Downers Grove Police Department
Number of Drones 1
Date of Purchase June 1, 2014
Model UDI
Status Operative
Notes Used for training purposes

Agency Illinois State Police
Number of Drones 1
Date of Purchase Not reported
Model UDI Model number U818A
Status Operative

Note that these toy drones may soon be replaced with more robust UAS once the officers find they get the hang of it

Antonelli Law UAS Practice Group

Whether it is corporate work, privacy concerns, or you want to get a handle on what the FAA is doing or what your company is allowed to do, you will feel comfortable calling a lawyer at Antonelli Law . Our UAS Practice Group billable rates don’t go higher than $350 per hour for our work and many services are far more affordable than that.

Contact Principal Jeffrey Antonelli for a free consultation at Jeffrey@Antonelli-Law.com or call 312-201-8310 to chat and get to know us. Our passion for leading and learning about UAS is second to none.

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