NC DRONE LAW
In recent years, more uses for drones (technically “unmanned aircraft”) have been developed. Farmers want them to identify where water or fertilizers are needed. Law enforcement envisions using them in criminal investigations. Private investigators could use them in surveillance. News organizations want to have them photograph dangerous places, like storm aftermath or riots. Amazon would like them to deliver packages to your house. A new state law took effect October 1, 2014 limiting the use of drones.
Note that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has its own rules about drone use. The FAA is still developing rules, but basically a drone cannot be used for commercial or business purposes without an FAA permit. Under both federal and state laws, it is generally lawful for anyone to use model aircraft under 55 pounds in the sight of the operator on property where he has permission, away from manned aircraft, for recreational purposes.
The rest of this article assumes that the drone operator has an FAA permit, and assumes that the operator seeks to use the drone for something other than recreational purposes. A NC Department of Transportation license must be obtained before using a drone for commercial purposes. Under the new law, a person, company, or government agency may use a drone to conduct surveillance of any person, dwelling, or land only with the consent of the person or of the owner of the dwelling or land. Permission of the landowner is required to launch or retrieve a drone from their property. Without permission, no one may use a drone to photograph any individual for the purpose of publishing or disseminating the image. There is an exception for news agencies photographing newsworthy events or places where the public is generally invited.
Special rules for law enforcement attempt to apply existing laws about warrants to drones. If officers get a warrant based on probable cause, they don’t have to rely on these exceptions. Just as a police officer can search in plain sight (e.g., in an open front yard) without a warrant, an officer’s drone can view and photograph in plain sight. Since warrants aren’t required when an officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that quick action is needed to swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, to prevent the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence, to conduct pursuit of an escapee or suspect, or to facilitate the search for a missing person, a drone can also be used without a warrant for these purposes.
Some privacy advocates worry about police using drones to photograph protestors. The new law allows officers to use drones to photograph gatherings to which the general public is invited on public or private land (e.g., if the protestors are gathered on a public street). If the protestors hold a closed meeting at someone’s home in order to plan an upcoming gathering, drones cannot lawfully take those photos without consent. However, consistent with federal law, police may use drones without a warrant to counter a high risk of a terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization if the US Secretary of Homeland Security or the Secretary of the NC Department of Public Safety determines that credible intelligence indicates that such a risk exists. If police gather evidence in violation of the statute, it is not admissible in criminal court unless the court determines that it was “obtained or collected under the objectively reasonable, good-faith belief that the actions were lawful.”
The new law makes it a criminal offense to use a drone to disrupt a manned aircraft, or to disrupt someone who is lawfully hunting or fishing. It is also a criminal offense to distribute images taken by a drone without the consent of the person photographed or the owner of the property photographed. If you are the victim of unlawful surveillance or photography, you may seek a Court injunction to stop it. You may also sue in civil court for actual damages. If the case involves disseminating photos, you may choose to sue for $5,000 per image instead of proving damages. Because technology changes rapidly, we should expect to see further development in federal and state laws concerning drones.
NC DRONE LAW