What’s that buzzing sound?

Published 8:26 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Here’s a hypothetical: You’re sitting in the backyard grilling a steak and you hear a buzzing noise. Looking up, you see a small mechanical device hovering overhead.

It just sits there. When you move, it moves, following you around.

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Or, let’s suppose it’s your teenage daughter in the backyard next to the family pool, dressed in a bikini, and the little hovering thing follows her around.

After a very few minutes, it becomes annoying, and after a few more minutes, infuriating. So, you do what any homeowner protecting his or her turf and children might be tempted to do. You dig out the old shotgun from the closet, load it with Number 4 shot and blow the thing out of the sky.

Have you just protected your home territory — your “air space” as well as your privacy — or have you illegally destroyed someone else’s private property?

Sounds bizarre, but similar incidents are occurring with increasing frequency around the country as small aircraft drones become the latest toy of electronic geeks and privacy invaders.

Did the drone you shot down have a camera? Was it a pedophile photographing your daughter, a neighbor just trying to irritate you or the local police stepping way outside the law?

The chances are pretty good that the nosy drone was not launched by the police. In Virginia, police have to have a search warrant for such intrusion.

But the rights of your neighbor to be annoying are less clear.

Asked recently whether you have a right to shoot down a drone, Isle of Wight Sheriff Mark Marshall responded in an email that it’s a question “that probably has yet to be settled either legislatively or by the courts.” (He did not recommend it, by the way.)

Marshall noted that the Virginia General Assembly did curtail police use of drones this year by requiring court oversight except where there is an immediate danger in not using the device. Good for the Assembly. That’s a reasonable approach.

As for individuals, though, there isn’t much guidance so far, Marshall noted.

“The FAA has crafted ‘guidelines’ for drone use, such as the device’s line of sight cannot be more than 400 feet and cannot pose a danger to persons, buildings, etc.,” he wrote.

To that he added, “How enforceable is that? And we do not have statutory authority in that arena in the local level.”

The sheriff’s prediction is also reasonable: “There will probably be additional legislative pushes to deal with privacy issues and there will probably be some cases that wind their way through the courts, when a property owner blasts one of these things out of the sky because of perceived infringement of said “air space” and they subsequently get charged with destruction of private property,” he wrote.

“I think there will be legislation and case law that will end up regulating some of this use.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips said the use of drones and other electronic devices are issues are hot topics among prosecutors that will undoubtedly escalate in the near future.

At the conclusion of the email exchange about the intrusive little devices, Marshall mused:

“Who would have thought we would be having this conversation?”

Certainly not this writer.