Brian Roebke photos
Deputy John Rosseau of the Brown County Sheriff’s Department attended last week’s Morrison town board meeting, telling those in attendance they need to keep getting videos and photos of a drone terrorizing their neighborhood. He said this is really a federal issue that local authorities have little jurisdiction over.
By Brian Roebke
Town of Morrison residents who live in the area of Ridge Court may need help from the federal government to help them solve a problem of a drone terrorizing their neighborhood in recent weeks.
A drone, believed to be owned and operated by a man who lives in Glenmore, has been hovering over people and horses, essentially terrorizing the neighborhood. However, current solutions to deal with the problem are few.
Deputy Robert Wagner and John Rosseau of the Brown County Sheriff’s Department attended last week’s town board meeting, telling those in attendance there is little they can do at this point because technology has outpaced federal law.
Rosseau and Wagner were sympathetic with the residents during the 90-minute discussion but noted they have little power to do what they think is right to combat the problem because what they would do supersedes federal law.
The issue began in mid-August when 16 adults and 11 children started being terrorized by a very low-flying drone that started sneaking up on them and hovering very low, videoing them in their back yards, looking in open house windows and shed doors and scaring horses several times a day. The drone has also chased children walking or biking on Ridge Court.
The operator is very skilled and can get the drone to move very quickly at a moment’s notice. At one point, the drone was shot at and damaged but was able to return to its home base, apparently with the camera no longer operating. A few days later, what’s believed to be a new drone resumed its action after the operator threatened people who shot at it, which is a federal violation.
Law enforcement was initially slow to respond but eventually took statements that were given to the Federal Aviation Administration.
After a busy day of activity on Saturday, several neighbors showed up in his driveway asking him to stop but he was belligerent and aggressive and threatened them.
Sunday morning, a Brown County Sheriff’s deputy visited the alleged operator of the drone and asked to see his drone operator’s license and drone registration and neighbors did not hear the drone the rest of that day.
At the town meeting, the deputies explained there are several agencies who control aviation but technology has outpaced laws and the federal government — namely the FAA — has been slow to react.
Drone owners are not required to register with state, but are to be registered with the federal government though the FAA. In this case, it’s believed the drone operator, who one town resident called a con artist, has not registered their drone despite a free or $5 registration fee.
A drone is defined as “an aircraft without direct human intervention” that can be piloted by two types of pilots: recreational (hobbyist) who must present certificate to law enforcement upon demand, and a certified remote pilot who flies for hire or commercially for real estate, government, or non-recreational purposes.
The question of who owns the sky comes up a lot. The deputies said the United States government has supreme control but state and local can regulate. Generally, airspace is from the surface (grass, top of buildings, and top of trees) up to 60,000 feet.
“Airspace is a public highway,” Wagner said.
There are three different United States Supreme Court cases dealing with privacy. They generally found observations including photographs and recordings taken within public navigable airspace do not violate a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
However, using drone technology to look inside a window IS a violation. An operator can be charged with disorderly conduct, nuisance, harassment, and stalking.
People cannot shoot down or cause damage to a drone because the drones can cause damage when coming out of the air with the potential to cause serious injury or death.
The tough thing is generally for something to be done, law enforcement needs proof of the violation as well as what images the drone took while it was flying. Of course, it’s next to impossible to get the drone as evidence.
“It’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing,” Rosseau said. “We can’t show that he has the footage until we get the footage but we can’t get the footage until we know that he has it.”
He said it’s hard to get a search warrant from a judge because there is no expectation they will find evidence.
There’s a new federal law, not yet in force that requires the drone operator to broadcast their signal to the general public.
Rosseau said the FFA is currently in contact with the sheriff’s office and 19 town of Morrison residents.
Local governments can enact some regulations but the person from the FAA they are dealing with is in Ohio and will likely not drive here to fine the operator.
Town Supervisor Jenny Wasmuth said what is alarming is the past of the person who’s suspected of being the drone operator. He has a long list of court cases and is a felon.
Rosseau said the county cannot enforce federal laws and they don’t have the authority to say who can and can’t operate a drone, just like they can’t say who can’t drive an automobile.
The laws date to 1926 when it’s unlikely anyone envisioned drones.
Upon viewing the videos sent to the FAA, the FAA rep did not find any illegal activity other than the drone is not registered.
“With what we have seen, according to the federal government and State of Wisconsin, there is not a violation of law,” Rosseau said.
While hwe sympathizes with the people, he said in the big scope of things the FAA is not highly concerned about this because the FAA oversees everything in the air, including everything to do with airplanes.
The key point is the law has not caught up with technology, and local governments cannot make ordinances stricter than federal law.
“I know that’s terribly frustrating,” Rosseau said, adding this is not a local, county, or state problem. “This is something that’s going to keep occurring until these statutes catch up.”
Wagner thinks drones should be reclassified as toys instead of vehicles, which would totally change law enforcement’s ability to deal with them.