Why do California drone laws address drone privacy issues?

Published: June 11, 2019


Categories: R/C Drones

Photo credit: Ryan Kartzke
Pacific Beach drone shot at sunset.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are more commonly known as drones, are strictly regulated by United States law to ensure the safety of people in the air and on the ground. These apply to all 50 states. However, some states, have additional laws that protect people in other ways. California is one of those states.

What guides California’s unique drone flying laws?

Privacy is one overarching consideration in additional California drone flying laws. The other consideration is ensuring unimpeded emergency responder assistance.

The Rupprecht Law P.A. website lays out these additional laws:

California Civil Code 1708.8

This law, along with Civil Code 1708.7, is quite long and involved, so a discussion regarding the spirit of the law and need for it follows the quoted statutes.

“(a) A person is liable for physical invasion of privacy when a person knowingly enters onto the land or into the airspace above the land of another person without permission or otherwise commits a trespass in order to capture any kind of visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of the plaintiff engaging in a private, personal, or familial activity and the invasion occurs in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person.”

California Civil Code 1708.7

“(a) A person is responsible for the tort of stalking when the plaintiff proves all of the following elements of the tort.”

Here is a very brief summary of the aforementioned tort elements:

  • The defendant demonstrated a pattern of behavior showing intent to follow, alarm, place under surveillance or otherwise harass the plaintiff.
  • The defendant’s actions cause the plaintiff to fear for his or her own safety or that of a family member.
  • The plaintiff suffered demonstrable emotional distress resulting from the invasion of their privacy.

The state of California has definitively addressed the concern about intrusive possibilities involving the use of drones. Drones can be an enjoyable pastime for hobbyists and a potential income producer for commercial flyers. However, no one wants to be relaxing in their backyard and maybe catching some rays in their bathing suit only to have a metallic intruder fly directly over them and begin taking pictures. Such intrusion is very upsetting.What led to enacting this California drone flying law?

What led to enacting this California drone flying law?

Ironically, this California civil code became law because of a major foreign event – the 1997 car crash in Paris resulting in Princess Diana’s and her fiancé’s deaths. To add to the irony, drones, or radio-controlled planes, were not nearly as popular as they are now. However, the popular interpretation of the events in Paris was that the paparazzi was chasing Princess Diana’s car and caused it to crash. While others blamed the crash on the inebriated state of the chauffeur, California lawmakers sought to protect celebrities living in their state by moving forward with new legislation to protect personal privacy.

According to Loeb & Loeb LLP, the purpose of 1708.8 was to strengthen California trespass laws by enacting civil damages that could result from three specific actions. Although drone privacy issues were not the major concern at the time of this law’s enactment, this law certainly addresses these issues.

These issues include:

  • The “physical invasion of privacy” complaint could be applied “when a defendant knowingly enters onto the land of another person without permission or otherwise [commits] a trespass.”
  • The law could enable a cause for legal action based on the principle of “constructive invasion of privacy.” This “technological trespass” could hold a person liable as a result of “attempts to capture.” This would include capturing images, sound clips, etc.
  • This law also permitted legal liability in an assault “committed with the intent to capture.” Once again, this kind of liability applies to “any type of visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of the plaintiff.”

The penalties for breaking this law, however, are monetary civil penalties. They can include punitive damages as well as “treble general and special damages.”

Celebrity complaints highlighted drone privacy issues.

From 2012 to the present, California celebrities have lodged complaints about the paparazzi’s rather enterprising use of drones that invaded their privacy. According to International Business Times, a particular beef that several celebrities had with the paparazzi’s use of drones was the photographing of their children.

Halle Berry

Actress Kristen Bell, along with her husband actor Dax Shepard, and actress Halle Berry spoke out against paparazzi taking pictures of their children. Consequentially, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation into law in late 2014 that amended the California Civil Code addressing drone privacy issues.

The IBT article also reported that, strangely enough, Governor Brown had vetoed legislation two days earlier that would have strengthened guidelines for the use of drones by police for surveillance purposes. The bill that went down in defeat at Governor Brown’s hand would have required police to obtain a warrant for drone use, except for emergency uses. Such exceptions would have included fires or hostage situations.

What is California’s drone law regarding emergency operations?

The legislators in California have also enacted drone laws that protect emergency operations from interference by drones. The law that covers this is quoted below.

California Civil Code 43.101

“(a) An emergency responder shall not be liable for any damage to an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system, if that damage was caused while an emergency responder was providing, and the unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system was interfering with the operation, support, or enabling of the emergency systems listed in Section 853 of the Government Code.”

Although this law includes some details that you can find on the Rupprecht Law website, it is reasonably self-explanatory and reinforces U.S. drone laws for hobbyists that prohibit them from flying close to emergency response activities. The California law basically says that if a hobbyist fails to comply with the U.S. mandate to avoid flying in an area where any kind of rescue operations are taking place, there is no point in crying to the authorities about the loss of their drone. They should not have been flying in that area at that time.

Conclusion Skeeter Drone

These laws drive home the principle that drone pilots should simply treat others as they would want to be treated while operating their aircraft.

Special Photo Credits:

  1. Halle Berry – Brave_67: License: https://www.flickr.com/photos/32633488@N02/3054926920/in/photolist-5DXikN-5Fwf9U-5DXjTh-5Wh129-6XxiQc-4GaguR-4GeqMs-54QJ5v-9EH4NE-dXFLuP-ff44xq-dG6d1L-bovPah-5ATdG2-5tpgps-jRgzRo-ff44A7-uMQfpg-NX9qPA-4yRTUm-dbYwgv-dbYwqS-atr9ab-Y4k9qN-fg7SkK-fg7QKH-fgo295-fg8KaZ-fgnUYQ-fgnUBo-fgnbTm-fg7TCk-fgoB7f-fg7WDz-fgndDh-fg7XYK-fgn7t7-fgmZWh-fgnby5-fgn9Sf-fg83Nk-fgndf1-fg9hPk-fgnNDG-fg8EZM-fg8EAH-fgoCjw-fg8Hq6-fg84YZ-fgn8eL
  2. Skeeter Drone – Greg Goebel, @ Sacramento Aerospace Museum, Calif./2007: License: https://www.flickr.com/photos/37467370@N08/7478838422/in/photolist-coT173-9c8ohT-9a1yaP-p4CoUw-2bd2Cyy-6rq7Ly-ikuZ2J-231BdSs-6rkSx2-6rq2cy-6rkWdn-8Ghsp5-5Qnzs8-6rkUrn-28i1vsB-dBJJSb-28i1yi6-cDQPmy-dBJFpw-rdkpuD-28i1rUV-cDQPzA-dLXKNk-Kk23o6-6rkNA2-GNuUrr-28i1qpR-8qDgKA-8cDSzu-6rkSeB-6rpXWE-8GhsXG-6rpYNb-5C2Qsq-o8vx9D-8GeoVx-6rkNUT-6rq26L-6rpYaw-6rkST8-8Ghzk5-6rkPRt-6rpX6W-6rq3Ty-8Ghszh-8Ghn8U-8GehFa-8Gepk8-8GeuqF-NV37Vm