For the first time, a federal grand jury has indicted an individual for the crime for shooting down a drone with a gun.  Recently, the United States Attorney’s office for the Middle District of Florida announced that it would be prosecuting a man with the federal crime of destruction of an aircraft.  The individual faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

Many reading this are no doubt asking why destroying a drone, which probably cost less than a thousand dollars, can warrant 30 years in prison.  The answer lies in the statute he is charged with violating and the way in which the definition of unmanned aircraft has developed.

In 1956, Congress enacted 18 U.S.C. § 32(a)(1), which made it a felony to “willfully . . . destroy, disable or wreck any aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States . . . .”  The “special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States” is defined in 49 U.S.C. § 46501(2) as including “a civil aircraft of the United States . . . .”   A “civil aircraft of the United States” is defined under 49 U.S.C. § 40102(17) as “an aircraft registered under chapter 441 of this title.”  The requirements for drone registration contained in 14 C.F.R. part 48 were, in turn, promulgated pursuant to 49 U.S.C. part 441.  As a result, if we drill all the way down to the bottom of this chain of definitions, there is little doubt that, although the statute regarding destruction of an aircraft was originally intended to apply to manned aircraft, it also applies to all but a few unmanned aircraft which are not registered.

There have, however, been numerous, well publicized incidents where people have shot down drones with seeming impunity.  For example, we have all seen articles with headlines such as Minnesota man shoots down drone with shotgun, and Woman shoots drone: “It hovered for few a seconds and I blasted it to smithereens.”  What explains this different treatment?

The answer to that question rests on prosecutorial discretion.  Just because someone commits a crime does not automatically mean that they will be prosecuted.  The United States Attorney’s office has limited resources, and it has a great deal of discretion in how it uses those resources.  As a result, prosecution will depend on who the alleged criminal is and the circumstances of the crime.

In this case, the US Attorney describes the incident as follows:

According to court documents, on July 11, 2021, deputies from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office responded to a burglary at a 10-acre business property in Mount Dora.  Deputies deployed a law enforcement drone to assist with the outdoor search, only to have the drone destroyed by gunfire from a neighboring property. When deputies responded to that location, they confronted Goney, who acknowledged that he had just shot down the drone with a .22 caliber rifle. He claimed that drones had been “harassing” him. Goney also admitted to the deputies that he could not lawfully possess a firearm—he has 29 prior felony convictions in Florida. As a convicted felon, Goney is prohibited from possessing firearms and ammunition under federal law.

So, in this case, we have: (1) a felon with 29 prior convictions, (2) with an illegal firearm, who (3) shoots down a police drone.  This obviously elevates the case above other, well publicized incidents which have gone unpunished.

Does this indictment mean there will be a new crackdown on people who shoot down drones?  Probably not, but it is worth keeping in mind that if you do try to shoot down a drone and something goes wrong, the government has all the tools necessary to impose an extremely serious punishment.