Yellowstone is now criminally charging drone and other model aircraft operators who fly their devices in the park. Individuals who are criminally charged face six months in jail and fines of up to $5,000. The cases will be prosecuted by The U.S. Department of Justice’s office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Wyoming (a federal prosecutor who otherwise would be prosecuting federal crimes like terrorism, child exploitation, gang violence and human trafficking). Persons charged with flying toys, drones and other model aircraft will quickly find that while their citation looks like a traffic ticket these cases bear no resemblance to those that would land them in traffic court. Rather, to fight the citation defendant’s will need to hire a lawyer (handling this case pro se would be insane) and appear in a U.S. District Court. Their case in federal court will be tried before a U.S. Magistrate Judge and they will face an Assistant United States attorney who will be armed with the full power of the U.S. government. Those who are convicted of flying drones, toys and other model aircraft in parks will spend their time in a federal prison, further burdening an over crowded prison system. Is this a good use of taxpayer resources?
The entire scheme smacks of overcriminalization, with penalties that –in most cases– do not fit the crime. The criminal justice system should only be used to punish intentional violations of the law or the most morally blameworthy and dangerous offenses, and flying toys in parks isn’t one of them. The Park Service should change their penalty schedule and implement rules that reserve jail time for only the most serious offenses such as those that actually injure persons or animals or damage park resources.
On August 29th Yellowstone issued a release, stating:
While taking a largely educational stance during the early phases of publicizing the ban, Yellowstone rangers have developed several criminal cases involving egregious violations of this ban.
World-wide attention was drawn to an incident where an unmanned aircraft crashed into Grand Prismatic Spring the afternoon of August 2. Theodorus Van Vliet of the Netherlands crashed his unmanned aircraft into the iconic hot spring. Van Vliet, who is cooperating with the ongoing investigation, has been charged with several violations of federal law and if found guilty faces up to $5,000 in fines and/or six months in jail and/or five years on probation.
Park staff members are still trying to determine if the material from which the unmanned aircraft is constructed poses a threat to the hot spring. Attempts to locate the device both from the ground and from a manned helicopter overflight have turned up possible areas in the pool where the unit may have come to rest. If its location can be confirmed, park staff members will determine if there is a way to safely remove the device without damaging the thermal feature.
This follows an earlier National Park Service policy memorandum which implemented a sweeping ban on all model aircraft in all national parks. The National Park Service in that June policy memorandum decreed that the ban on “unmanned aircraft” includes a ban on drones and model aircraft, specifically they stated:
For the purposes of this Policy Memorandum, the term “unmanned aircraft” means a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the device, and the associated operational elements and components that are required for the pilot or system operator in command to operate or control the device (such as cameras, sensors, communication links). This term includes all types of devices that meet this definition (e.g. model airplanes, quadcopters, drones that are used for any purpose, including for recreation or commerce.
As I’ve previously written, with the stakes so high, and with such substantial fines and jail time involved, the Park Service needs to do a better job defining what exactly they mean by “unmanned aircraft”:
For example, would this paper airplane that can be flown by a phone be banned? What about this $9.50 remote controlled helicopter, would it violate the ban if operated near a camper’s tent by a child? What about this $71 quadcopter if flown over that same tent? How about this $479 quadcopter flown over the same tent? It’s not clear whether any of these uses would be permitted.
But more importantly, the National Park Service should do a better job defining the penalties for these offenses. While the Park Service may come up with a different punishment schedule than I suggest here, a reasonable approach would be as follows:
First time offenders, and those who don’t endanger persons, animals or resources should not face jail time, a fine would be appropriate. Fines could range between $350 and $1,000.
Repeat offenders, and those who endanger persons, animals or resources should face a larger fine, ranging from $1,000-$5,000.
Only those offenders who act with a criminally negligent mindset and injure a person or animal or damage park resources should face jail time.
While there are legitimate concerns with the flying of model aircraft in National Parks, jail time should be reserved for the most serious offenses — merely flying toys isn’t one of them.
Gregory S. McNeal is a professor specializing in law and public policy. You can follow him on Twitter @GregoryMcNeal.