The following advisory drone guidelines are being provided in an effort to ensure the safety of suspects, law enforcement, and the broader community, specifically in the unincorporated areas of Greenville County. Any private drone usage near incidents involving law enforcement must be lawful, must not interfere with ongoing law enforcement activities, and must not endanger—in any way—the safety of individuals on scene. Below, the applicable federal laws, followed by several practical guidelines for drone operation, are provided to assist in citizens exercising their constitutional rights related to observing law enforcement and newsgathering via drones.
Federal Law Governing Private Drone Operation
The use and operation of drones (also called Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems or “SUAS”) is governed by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). See 14 C.F.R. § 107.1. The FAA has issued specific regulations addressing when, where, and how drones are to be operated. Accordingly, barring a granted and documented waiver by the FAA, the use of drones is prohibited in the following circumstances, among others:
- The drone pilot may not operate the drone in a “careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” (See 14 C.F.R. § 107.23).
- The drone may not be flown over other individuals. (See 14 C.F.R. § 107.39).
- The drone may not be flown at night, including, with few exceptions, the 30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset (See 14 C.F.R. § 107.29).
- The drone may not be flown higher than 400 feet above ground level or at a rate of speed faster than 100 miles per hour (See 14 C.F.R. § 107.51).
- The drone may not be flown from a moving vehicle. (See 14 C.F.R. § 107.25).
- The drone pilot must not have consumed an alcoholic beverage within the 8 hours prior to operation, and must not be under the influence of alcohol, a drug that affects a person’s faculties, or any illegal narcotic. (See 14 C.F.R. § 107.27; 14 C.F.R. §§ 91.17, 19).
Individuals who do not obey the prohibitions listed above, without the requisite waiver from the FAA, will be reported to the FAA for civil sanctions and penalties.
Greenville County Sheriff’s Office Advisory Guidelines for Drone use at Ongoing Incidents and Crime Scenes
- Individuals are prohibited at all times from operating a drone directly above law enforcement personnel or directly above the area of interest to law enforcement. See 14 C.F.R. §§ 107.39, .23; Greenville County, S.C., Ordinance § 15-10(b) (“Interfering with a County Law Enforcement Officer”).
- Individuals are prohibited from “livestreaming” ongoing law enforcement operations using a drone, since doing so endangers the lives of law enforcement on the ground, as well as any suspects or bystanders that may be in the area. See 14 C.F.R. § 107.23; Greenville County, S.C., Ordinance § 15-10(b).
For example, if a drone were to “livestream” an ongoing SWAT operation involving a barricaded individual who is armed, such live aerial coverage would reveal the positions of deputies on the ground, as well as any potential bystanders, providing the barricaded suspect with the ability to view the aerial coverage live and coordinate a violent, life-threatening, response.
- Individuals who wish to lawfully operate a drone in an area adjacent to law enforcement, in an attempt to observe or record law enforcement, are advised to produce their certificate of registration for the drone to an available law enforcement officer on site before initiating their private drone operation. See 49 U.S.C. § 44103(d).
- Individuals attempting to operate a drone in an area adjacent to ongoing law enforcement operations must follow all applicable federal regulations. (See Page 1 supra).
- Individuals are permitted to lawfully record aerial footage of an area occupied by law enforcement, so long as these guidelines are followed and doing so does not interfere with any efforts by law enforcement to secure and process the crime scene. See Greenville County, S.C., Ordinance § 15-10(b). Any video recorded should be uploaded or broadcast after the incident has been resolved by law enforcement (e., not simultaneously) (See § 2 supra).
- Individuals operating drones around a location where law enforcement officers are present must yield, at all times, to any GCSO drone operating on the scene for law enforcement purposes. In relation to other drones, any GCSO drone takes priority and controls the right-of-way for the airspace in and around the incident. See 14 C.F.R. § 107.37(b); Greenville County, S.C., Ordinance § 15-10(b).
- Individuals must cease to operate their drone if they are requested by law enforcement, even if such operation is conducted in an area adjacent to law enforcement, provided it is interfering with ongoing law enforcement operations. The decision to prohibit this type of drone usage can be made by the on-scene Commander, or his or her designee, who will address any questions pertaining to the request to cease operations. See Greenville County, S.C., Ordinance § 15-10(b).
Individuals who do not follow the above guidelines will be reported to the FAA and be subject to prosecution under local, state, and federal laws, as applicable.