A law blog dedicated to tracking legal developments about drones in new york city, new york state, and beyond.*
*not legal advice, personal views only

Man crashes his drone into the Empire State Building. Is there a law for that?

On February 4, 2016, New York City police arrested a 27 year old man whose drone crashed into the side of the Empire State Building.  As the drone hovered over 5th Avenue, a gust of wind sent it crashing into a window on the 6th floor and it thereafter came to rest on the 5th floor tier.  The police arrested the man after he asked the building’s security guards if he could retrieve his drone.  

Misdemeanor charges were brought against him for reckless endangerment and he spent several hours in a Manhattan holding cell before being released.  His case is now pending before a New York City criminal court.  The criminal complaint states that the man created a “substantial risk of physical injury to pedestrians,” though no injuries were reported.  Curiously, the man claims he asked a police officer beforehand whether he could fly his drone above 34th Street and apparently the officer told him it was fine.  Read more in the New York Times here.

Flying a recreational drone near buildings or pedestrians in New York City presents a set of obvious risks.  Imagine the drone operator lost control of a 3 lb. drone and it dropped 50 feet onto a pedestrian on Fifth Avenue causing injuries.  Or imagine that the drone free-fell onto a yellow cab driving along Fifth Avenue, broke the window shield, caused the driver to panic, swerve, and crash into another car.  The possibilities are numerous.

The issue at the moment is that there are no laws in New York regulating the recreational use of drones.  For example, in the Empire State Building case, the police charged the man with reckless endangerment – a catchall criminal statute that makes it a misdemeanor to “recklessly engage in conduct that creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person.”  Since the statute contains no language about drones, it is left to a judge interpreting the law to decide at what point the operator engaged in reckless conduct – if at all.  Is it when he decided to fly his drone above 34th street next to the Empire State Building?  Or is it when the gust of wind caused him to lose control?  What about the police officer who purportedly told him it was ok to fly his drone above 34th street?

The point is two-fold.  First, the existing laws do not speak to drone usage and the lack of specificity creates ambiguity for judges and lawyers.  While statutes like reckless endangerment can be applied in this situation, the broad language of the law will result in judges laboring to create a set of rules for drones, a task better left to a legislative body or executive agency with more expertise.  Second, without specific laws, neither the public nor law enforcement agencies know what the rules are when it comes to operating drones.  Case in point is the police officer who purportedly told the Empire State Drone operator that he could fly his drone above 34th street.

Who has the authority to regulate recreational usage of drones in New York?  The short answer is the New York State Legislature and New York City Council.

In New York State, there is proposed legislation for drones pending before the State Assembly and the State Senate, but this legislation has not advanced beyond its committee and it could be some time before any laws are passed.

In New York City, the City Council has 4 bills pending before the Committee for Transportation.  These bills were originally proposed in early 2015 and had a hearing in December 2015.  However they are still in committee and have not been put up for a vote.

Thus, as described above, there currently is no law for recreational drone usage in New York City or New York State.  I will focus on the development of these laws moving forward.  Stay tuned!