Invasion of privacy

Published 11:47 am Monday, October 9, 2017

GATESVILLE – What are the rights of a property owner when it comes to a drone invading his or her private space?

It appears in Gates County, there are no ordinances in place to deal with such a scenario. However, there soon could be regulations in place.

During the public comments section of the Gates County Board of Commissioners regularly scheduled meeting here Sept. 18, a county resident addressed the local leaders about what he termed as “an invasion of privacy.”

Weaver Harter, who resides on Kelly Street near Gates, told the Commissioners that he and his family, as well as others in his residential area, are being harassed by the operator of a drone.

Harter said contact was made with the Gates County Sheriff’s Office a few weeks ago about this issue. He stated that deputies responded, but there is no county ordinance currently on the books that control the operation of drones. Without such guidelines to enforce, the deputies were powerless and the drone use was permitted to continue in what was deemed as “free air space.”

Linda Hofler, Chair of the County Commissioners, stated that this was the first she has heard of this issue. She asked her four fellow commissioners if they were aware of this type of situation, and each replied negatively.

Harter stated he believed the best course of action at this point would be for county officials to come up with “some type of ordinance for drone usage.”

County Manager Natalie Rountree confirmed that Gates County currently has no ordinance in place that controls the use of drones. She added that whatever is done moving forward would initially be heard by the county’s Planning Board prior to coming before the Board of Commissioners for action.

Commission Vice Chairman Jack Owens asked if advice for crafting a possible ordinance would come from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“I believe the State of Virginia has guidelines about what certain areas drones are able to legally operate,” stated Hofler. ‘We’ll have to investigate this.”

Harter stated he wasn’t overly concerned with the drone operating in his neighborhood. However, he was worried about video being recorded by the operator of the drone, especially over his private property.

“That’s a violation of our privacy,” he stressed. “There’s no proof that they’re taking images, but there is a camera on that drone. And you can’t get a warrant to obtain those images because there is no ordinance.”

He added that the video/still image capability of these drone cameras is amazing.

“You can fly one right up to the back porch of someone’s residence and tell what they’re reading,” Harter stated. “That’s how scary this is.”

Owens inquired of Harter if he could share any personal experiences of the drone flying over his property.

“My granddaughter was in our pool and the drone was hovering overhead,” he remarked. “The other kids came running in the house; that’s when I noticed the drone hovering over my property.”

Harter stated that the operator of the drone was a close neighbor.

“He’s been bothering other neighbors as well (by operating the drone),” Harter noted. “I tried talking to him, but that went nowhere.

“I just wanted you to be aware of what is going on and hopefully you can put an ordinance in place,” he closed.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention; we’ll take it from here,” Hofler said.

According to the NC Department of Transportation’s website, the DOT Division of Aviation oversees the use of drones in the state. Certain regulations apply for commercial use; however, those flying drones for recreational purposes are not required to obtain a license or permit to operate these unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). However, recreational users are subject to NC UAS rules and regulations.

According to North Carolina General Statute 15A-300.1 (Restrictions on use of UAS), no person, entity, or State agency shall use an unmanned aircraft system to conduct surveillance of a person or a dwelling occupied by a person and that dwelling’s curtilage without the person’s consent; or conduct surveillance of private real property without the consent of the owner, easement holder, or lessee of the property.

That law also prohibits photographing an individual, without the individual’s consent, for the purpose of publishing or otherwise publicly disseminating the photograph. This subdivision shall not apply to newsgathering, newsworthy events, or events or places to

which the general public is invited.

The law goes on to say that any person who is the subject of unwarranted surveillance, or whose photograph is taken in violation of the provisions of this section, shall have a civil cause of action against the person, entity, or State agency that conducts the surveillance or that uses an unmanned aircraft system to photograph for the purpose of publishing or otherwise disseminating the photograph. In lieu of actual damages, the person whose photograph is taken may elect to recover five thousand dollars ($5,000) for each photograph or video that is published or otherwise disseminated, as well as reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees and injunctive or other relief as determined by the court.

Evidence obtained or collected in violation of this section is not admissible as evidence in a criminal prosecution in any court of law in this State except when obtained or collected under the objectively reasonable, good-faith belief that the actions were lawful.

Meanwhile, the FAA has set guidelines for safe and responsible operation of drones for recreational purposes. They are:

Always fly below an altitude of 400 feet, and fly within your direct line of sight.

Be aware of FAA airspace requirements.

Do not fly near stadiums, public events, or directly over people.

Do not fly near aircraft, especially near airports.

Do not fly near emergency response efforts such as fires or hurricane recovery efforts.

Do not fly for compensation.

Do not fly at night.

Do not fly a UAS/drone that weighs more than 55 pounds.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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