Despite multiple legal violations, firefighter-buzzing drone pilot gets off with probation

drone pilot firefighters

To some readers, the punishment may seem as bewildering as the offense it addressed. On Tuesday, a Virginia judge sentenced a pilot who repeatedly dive-bombed Salem firefighters with his unregistered drone to two years of probation – radically milder treatment than the maximum three-year prison stint and $250,000 fine that laws allow.

Guilt in the case was virtually never in question. As DroneDJ reported in November, the now 40-year old defendant admitted he’d been the pilot of the drone that continually buzzed a group of firefighters gathered outside their Salem station house in July, 2019. Not only did he continue making the aggressive swoops upon the first responders, but only relented when he flew the UAV into the building, where it lost contact with controller and crashed. “I know I’m guilty,” he said in entering his plea, albeit without offering any reasoning for his bonehead move. “I was the one operating the drone irresponsibly.”

In comments during his sentencing Tuesday, the accused provided no more explanation that motivated the potentially injurious stunt other than it being a bit of fun. “It was an absolutely stupid mistake,” The Roanoke Times reported him saying. “I totally regret the decision I made.”

Despite the occasion to do so, the judge failed to ask which bad idea he was referring to. Because in addition to piloting the drone irresponsibly, the defendant marched into the local police station later the same day to demand its return.

To make matters worse, he’d also failed to register the UAV as legally required. While using it to harass the firefighters, meanwhile, he’d flown within the restricted airspace of the nearby Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.

That’s a variety of lousy decisions to regret. 

Despite that abundance, prosecutors admitted during the November hearing that the various violations were all so rare they had no sentencing guidelines to refer to (though failure to register the drone does carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison). As a result – and presumably to illicit a guilty plea and be done with it faster – they agreed to seek no jail time within the negotiated plea bargain. 

In the end, the presiding judge went one better and spared the defendant even a token fine. That indulgence was based in part by input from the firefighters indicating they’d considered the intrusion more of a nuisance than danger. Also factored in was the court’s view that the victims were never at any serious risk of physical harm.

Willful violators of laws can do far worse in court (and usually do).

Still, conditions of the plea bargain did carry an attendant financial punishment – of sorts. As part of the agreement, the defendant accepted to give up his drone, which his lawyer said cost $1,600 when purchased.

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