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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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 10:27am

    Guess which group of people are most likely to interfere with the emergency services? Hint, that also stoke up moral panics, and think that getting the story or picture overrides almost all privacy and safety consideration.


    You got it, reporters and their photographers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:03pm

      Re:

      I was just about to wonder, how many news choppers have gotten in the way of firefighting efforts this season...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 10:37am

    Depending on the size of the drone, the helicoptor's rotor wash should be enough to knock it out of the sky. If that doesn't work, they can just unload their water tanks above the drone and send it plummeting to the ground along with 100's of gallons of water.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 10:45am

    'Murder charges, murder charges for everyone!'

    Sounds fair, so I take it the DA's office will also be filing murder charges against reporters on the scenes of disasters or crimes where people have died?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 10:46am

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

      Give it a few years.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:09pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 31 Jul 2015 @ 4:27pm

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

      Sounds fair, so I take it the DA's office will also be filing murder charges against reporters on the scenes of disasters or crimes ...

      If a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich, it can indict you too. This prosecutor's just as out of control as all the rest of them. Do you feel safe yet?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 1 Aug 2015 @ 8:48pm

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

      Don't forget operating a motor vehicle within a thousand feet of a motor vehicle crash. After all, it endangers emergency personnel even more than a camera drone does!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sehlat (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 10:45am

    "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.

    So:

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 31 Jul 2015 @ 4:36pm

      Re: "If it bleeds, it leads."

      Remember that exchange in "Absence of Malice"?

      I do, yes. Great movie/story. Sally damned near redeemed herself with that one. Paul was brilliant.
      (0) /home/blah_ hostname
      AbsenceOfMalice

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    steell (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 10:49am

    If I'm not mistaken, even in the whacko State of California a murder charge requires intent to kill. So what we have here is some asinine grandstanding prosecutor making a fool of himself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:03pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:52pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 1 Aug 2015 @ 6:19am

      Re:

      So what we have here is some asinine grandstanding prosecutor ...

      Is there any other kind?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 10:56am

    Intent

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 11:09am

      Re: Intent

      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?

      California has felony murder provisions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felony_murder_rule_(California)

      With felony murder, if someone dies in the commission of some *other* felony, you can be charged with felony murder. Kind of.

      But I don't see how they could possibly apply here.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        BS Simon, 30 Jul 2015 @ 2:14pm

        Re: Re: Intent

        Interfering with the flight of a Comercial aircraft is a felony.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 3:33pm

        Re: Re: Intent

        So is that kinda like an accessory to a crime. For instance if you are the getaway driver for a bank robber who shot someone you are an accessory which makes you almost as guilty as the person who actually shot the victim even if you never intended or knew ahead of time that the person you are helping will end up killing someone else. I think it's kinda stupid and extreme.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 11:08am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Reality bites, 30 Jul 2015 @ 11:13am

    Prosecutor seems to be another way of saying traitor or retard!

    Can't expect a traitor to understand reality nor the constitution. They do as their master tells them too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2015 @ 7:56am

      Re: Prosecutor seems to be another way of saying traitor or retard!

      Is he a traitor if the whole government is in "their" pocket too?
      Oh well, its only a matter of time until the next one, then we can listen to their bitching about the goys being mean to them again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 11:16am

    He probably just finished a court hearing before this statement, and was pissed that his buddy cops are all being charged for murder lately, maybe this is his justice?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    That One Other Not So Random Guy, 30 Jul 2015 @ 11:17am

    It’s funny. People don’t make a peep when their phone/internet data is swept up and archived, and when Eric Holder admitted that drone strikes were a possibility here in the US, but fly a drone near their house or in this case over a forest fire and they freak out. Go Merikins!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 11:46am

      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."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:12pm

      Re:

      I still suspect the reporter Michael Hastings was killed by a drone strike. But then I am a bit paranoid as I believe the twin towers and WTC 7 were brought down by demolition charges and not the planes as a root cause

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 4:16pm

        Re: Re:

        That doesn't make you paranoid; it makes you an idiot.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 1 Aug 2015 @ 6:38am

        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 ...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          tqk (profile), 1 Aug 2015 @ 6:44am

          Re: Re: Re:

          By the way, I actually do believe the CIA is that evil, however, I also know there's absolutely no way under the sun that anyone will ever get even close to proving it and outing them.

          Have fun!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JMT (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 5:28pm

      Re:

      You're talking about two types of vehicle both referred to as 'drones', but are almost completely unrelated otherwise. Any comparison between the two as you've done just sounds silly.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 1 Aug 2015 @ 7:06am

        Re: Re:

        You're talking about two types of vehicle both referred to as 'drones', but are almost completely unrelated otherwise.

        This is a prosecutor we're talking about. Facts are irrelevant details which merely cloud the issue.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 11:49am

    We are all criminals in the eyes of the government...

    ...they just have to figure out which law they can get us on. If there isn't one, they will create one. Soon they will be compiling lists of purchasers of drones and requiring drones to store and report their GPS locations.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 12:57pm

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:03pm

    What about birds?

    Is this DA going to prosecute large birds? Many have wingspans larger than drones and have no one at the controls who could be convinced to move away to a safe distance.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:04pm

    I wish they would stop pussy footing around and just state what they really want. If you think or do anything they disagree with they send you to prison without trial.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:26pm

    Doesn't the turbulence from the heat or just the plain ol heat from the hot fire on the plastic parts have some built in deterrent??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    DigDug, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:30pm

    My counter to this braindead idiot's ranting

    If anyone, anywhere in the world dies from asphyxiation, I will charge this asshat with murder for breathing and using up oxygen the poor dead person needed to live.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    pnwpablo (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:43pm

    If I don't pull over for an ambulance...

    would that be murder, too?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 1:57pm

    Boy, if only these district attorneys would just exhibit the same enthusiasm when it comes to holding police accountable...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2015 @ 2:10pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    aldestrawk (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 3:50pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      aldestrawk (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 4:01pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JMT (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 5:32pm

    It's still grandstanding. He's warning about an action that is extremely unlikely to happen. Nothing in the recent stories about drones around fires even hinted at deliberate malice towards aircrew.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    droneboy1, 30 Jul 2015 @ 6:57pm

    No drones at all ...

    There were no drones. A report does not a reality make. Where are the photos of the suspect quad copters? And who's to say, if there were drones, they weren't CIA or OGA craft?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Digitari, 30 Jul 2015 @ 8:37pm

    I wonder.....

    Anyone else bet this guy wants to run for AG soon..



    MPAA $$$ is soooo nice, and, they do all the paperwork for you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 30 Jul 2015 @ 11:29pm

    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 -
    http://www.inquisitr.com/1289033/crazed-woman-attacks-man-flying-drone-at-beach/

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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    toyotabedzrock (profile), 31 Jul 2015 @ 2:04am

    The initial story claimed that drones where tailing firefighting aircraft. The pilots where seeing things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jake, 31 Jul 2015 @ 2:30am

    Quick technical question. Just how low do water-bombers have to fly in order to drop their payload in an effective pattern?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2015 @ 11:20am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Jul 2015 @ 8:02am

    Cool, can we charge the DA with murder because he keeps letting cops that shoot unarmed people slide?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 31 Jul 2015 @ 4:18pm

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Just Sayin, 1 Aug 2015 @ 1:40pm

    Some Enterprising Pyromaniacs

    _may try to take advantage of this opportunity by setting up drone sales along a road near a forest they've already ignited and turn their new customers in or something like that in an attempt to rake in that bounty..

    So, don't buy any of those drones!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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