DA Claims He'll Charge Drone Operators Near Wildfires For Murder

from the really-now? dept

Should someone who flies a drone near a wildfire be charged with murder if someone dies in that fire? At least one California District Attorney is insisting he’s going to bring such charges should that situation occur.

It’s wildfire season out here in California, and the story of the summer seems to be about drones and wildfires. There have been a whole bunch of stories about private drones somehow interfering with firefighting aircraft. The stories are almost always extremely vague with very few details. It’s entirely possible that these stories are completely accurate — and I certainly don’t deny that it’s possible that a drone could interfere with firefighting aircraft in some manner. However, something about these stories really has the feel of your typical local news exaggeration/moral panic. The coverage is always by local TV news reporters. The details are slim, but the moral panic aspect is ratcheted up quite high.

And… soon after, politicians and grandstanding law enforcement get involved. I have no problem with something like an education campaign about the potential dangers of flying drones near wildfires and how they could hinder firefighting efforts. That seems perfectly reasonable. But politicians are not just looking to educate, they’re offering a $75,000 bounty for identifying such drone operators and proposing a new law that would make flying a drone over a forest fire a federal offense with fines and up to five years in prison.

And… that’s not all. In the press release from San Bernadino County that offers up that $75,000 bounty, the local District Attorney Mike Ramos says that he’ll go after drone operators with murder charges if people die in a fire “due to” the drone operations:

District Attorney Mike Ramos warned drone operators that they could and would be prosecuted for murder if their drones led to the death of a fire-fighting flight crew or anyone on the ground.

Of course, determining that a drone “led to the death” of anyone seems like a pretty big stretch — and as far as I can tell, in all of the hysteria of drones and wildfires in the last month or so, there have been no deaths at all. But it seems like a huge stretch to argue that flying a drone over a fire can lead to murder charges. In the past, murder charges related to fires have been focused on things like arsonists who deliberately set the fire, rather than those who were just looking to observe or film the fire, and through their own ignorance got in the way of firefighting efforts.

Again, this isn’t to diminish the possibility of real risks and potential damages from drones interfering with firefighters, but so much of this reads like a typical local news moral panic, and tossing in the threat of murder charges for flying a personal drone to observe a wild fire seems to go beyond any sense of reason. It feels like law enforcement issuing a bogus threat to try to sound serious.

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Comments on “DA Claims He'll Charge Drone Operators Near Wildfires For Murder”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 'Murder charges, murder charges for everyone!'

under the governments definition a reporter only reports on what the government tells them to report and say.

So anyone at those crimes scenes would not be classified as a reporter as they would be checking the facts for themselves instead of waiting to hear what they will be told to say.

So of course they can charge “those people” with obstruction of justice and murder for causing delays in catching whoever is responsible.

sehlat (profile) says:

"If it bleeds, it leads."

And even if it only claims to bleed, you have headlines for days.

Remember that exchange in “Absence of Malice”?

Q: Is that true?

A: No, but it’s accurate.


Drones are flying. That’s accurate.

Q: Are they interfering with fighting fires?

A: Ask me again after I figure out how much advertising we can sell based on our ratings.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Even if you don’t need intent to get charged with murder, I don’t see any jury ever convicting someone of murder over flying a drone. Heck, I don’t see a judge even letting it get to a trial.

At best I could see them getting a lower sentence of manslaughter, though I don’t know if manslaughter would really apply here either.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

…I don’t know if manslaughter would really apply here either…

In my area there is a charge of “involuntary manslaughter”. The definition is that one did not intend to take a life but could not avoid it, and was not negligent either (manslaughter has implied negligence).

Yes, in this article’s description even involuntary manslaughter charges might be a stretch for a drone operator.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:


Doesn’t murder require intent? Did any of those useless local journalists bother to ask the grandstanding DA such a basic question? Or are the reporters just stenographers now?

Look, you want to charge the operator with some kind of negligence, endangerment, or interference charge, that makes sense. Maybe even something like manslaughter if it really results in a death could be reasonable. But murder? Bet the DA graduated from the Cooley Law School or got his degree in a cereal box.

Anonymous Coward says:

Can the public charge the DA for gross incompetence for going after evil-drone-operators-who-kill or the asshead who started the fire instead? I’ve been in plenty of wildland fires and drones are rarely a concern if at all…

…unless they have razor sharp blades and dive bomb the fire crews or drop fuel. Then perhaps the DA isn’t wasting taxpayers time and money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It’s probably due to the fact that they’re not the ones controlling the drones. They’re (understandably) afraid that they won’t be able to do their jobs because some nitwit is getting in their way.

It’s humanity at its most basic: “It’s not a problem until it actually happens to me, and I can’t do anything about it.”

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

But then I am a bit paranoid as I believe the twin towers and WTC 7 were brought down by demolition charges …

No. The paint (all internal walls were repainted only months prior) was a special CIA mixture that enhances combustion. It was made to be a firetrap because they wanted to obliterate evidence.

[obligatory]: Obama knows this is true, but he can’t complain because they’ll kill him if he does!

Chyaa, right. I probably ought to mix in some HRC here too, but Zzzzz …

Anonymous Coward says:

Goodbye improved search and rescue

A drone flying around a fire doing things like mapping the fire, seeking stranded humans and various other important tasks that can save lives will just not be allowed.

Their potential to interfere with fighting wild fires outweighs any possible benefits they may have.

And drones flying over fires filming children in a pool, murder the drone operator and his/her drone with a shotgun!

Anonymous Coward says:

I doubt it really matters if they’d get a conviction or not.

They want to strike the fear of having to go through a trial and everything (being charged, paying lawyers, etc.) – most normal folks don’t need or want that kind of complication in their lives (and the perhaps fallout from it – like maybe getting fired, public shaming, etc.).

It’s fear-mongering. Hoping to keep “the honest folks honest”; but “the bad guys” may take it as a challenge.

aldestrawk says:

The DA is being intentionally ambiguous. What he really means is that he will file murder charges in the situation where a drone actually collides with an aircraft and causes any of the aircraft crew to die or if anyone on the ground is hit. This is the only legally reasonable way that one could convict on a murder charge. The DA is hoping potential drone flyers will ingest the ambiguity without thinking too critically about it. It is far too remote a connection to say that, because grounded planes allowed a fire controlled by hugely unpredictable factors to grow larger and sometime later (even days later) someone was killed by the fire because you flew a drone in the area.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

This is the actual quote by DA Mike Ramos at the press conference yesterday:

“I just want you to know, that if an intentional act of a drone was to cause one of these wonderful men and women fighting fires to go down and be injured or killed, or another civilian on the ground, we will prosecute you for murder. I need you to know that,” Michael Ramos said.

This statement is less ambiguous than the paraphrasing done in the press release.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Idiot seeks to upgrade his political position in the future, makes idiotic claims to grandstand in papers. Public laps it up, ooohing and ahhing at all the right spots.
Does nothing to solve actual problems, furthers a rumor based conspiracy that drones are run by evil people trying to murder people.
Some yahoo is going to pull a gun and shoot someone flying a drone and then claim they were protecting people.
Don’t think it will happen?
Exhibit A –

She had to stand up and protect everyone from pervs with drones, and was willing to assault someone and lie to the cops.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It depends upon the terrain and the plane. Ideally, about 200 feet during a run. This is well within the usual 400 foot ceiling that hobbyist drones operate under. Most of the times the planes that drop water or fire retardant, and the command planes are flying higher. Conceivably, if the drone is not operating near the fire line the planes could easily avoid them. However, there is unpredictability on both sides and drone operators aren’t in communication with the command plane.

tqk (profile) says:

However, something about these stories really has the feel of your typical local news exaggeration/moral panic. The coverage is always by local TV news reporters. The details are slim, but the moral panic aspect is ratcheted up quite high.

I’m beginning to think you’re my long lost, separated at birth, twin brother. I wish.

No, I cannot see that a little plastic thingy has any chance whatsoever of standing up to the backwash of a prop driven water-bomber airplane, and holy !@#$ is this !@#$ overblown!

I suggest we follow the money, *AND* discredit a few very credulous supposed “journalists.” It’ll be fun!

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