L.A. Now

After drone crashes into power lines, West Hollywood cracks down

The drone wars continue.

Three months after a drone flew into power lines and knocked out power to hundreds of West Hollywood residents, the city on Tuesday imposed strict limits on flying unmanned aircraft.

In a unanimous vote, the West Hollywood City Council approved on final reading an ordinance that prohibits drones from taking photos, video or audio recordings of people where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as their home or hotel room.

Then on Wednesday, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office announced that two men would be the first to face criminal charges under the city’s new drone restrictions. Michael Ponce, 20, and Arvel Chappel, 35, could each face up to six months in jail for violating the ordinance, City Atty. Mike Feuer said in a statement.

City prosecutors say that on Dec. 12, Chappel’s drone forced an LAPD air unit to change its landing path. Days earlier, Ponce was cited for flying a drone within three miles of several hospital heliports near Griffith Park.

The moves by West Hollywood and L.A. are the latest efforts at regulating drones, which have drawn anger in recent years after, among other things, being flown into the airspace of planes fighting wildfires.

In October, the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to violate Federal Aviation Administration drone regulations, including flying within five miles of an airport without permission. 

The new law in West Hollywood requires civilian drone pilots to register their aircraft with the city, in addition to the registration already required by the FAA. West Hollywood drone operators must place a city-issued permit sticker and identification number on the drone where it can be seen from the ground.

Unless authorized by the FAA, drones in West Hollywood now are banned from flying at night. Drones also cannot fly above city parks during city-sponsored events in the park unless authorized to do so, and they cannot fly above City Hall or fire or police stations.

Violators could be charged with a misdemeanor.

The drone ordinance was recommended by Mayor Pro Tempore Lauren Meister after several drone-related incidents in the city.

Meister said at a council meeting last month that at a summertime rally at West Hollywood Park in which hundreds of people celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, “there was a drone flying over, and people were very, very uncomfortable.”

In October, a drone crashed into electrical wires lining Larrabee Street and Sunset Boulevard, knocking one of them to the ground. The downed wire cut off power for nearly 700 Southern California Edison customers for three hours.

West Hollywood resident Dan Berkowitz in November told the council that he had been sitting on his home’s terrace, reading the newspaper in a bathing suit, when he heard a whirring sound. He looked up and saw a drone buzzing about 15 feet above him.

Berkowitz said he was "disturbed by this Peeping Tom,” and that when he got up to get a closer look, the drone flew away.

“I’m sure flying a drone is fun, but, please, keep it out of my face, out of my house and out of the power lines,” he said.

West Hollywood City Atty. Michael Jenkins told the council during the ordinance’s first reading last month that the regulations come amid a “rapidly changing, fluid environment” when it comes to federal, state and local drone regulation and that government agencies have been scrambling to address safety and privacy concerns.

In the fall, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a trio of bills that would have prohibited civilians from flying drones over wildfires, schools, prisons and jails.

"Drone technology certainly raises novel issues that merit careful examination," Brown wrote in his veto message. "This bill, however, while well-intentioned, could expose the occasional hobbyist and the FAA-approved commercial user alike to burdensome litigation and new causes of action." 

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Follow me at @haileybranson / Google+

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

2:22 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information.

This story was originally posted at 1:11 p.m.

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