Two New York men face felony charges after authorities said they flew a drone within 800 feet of a New York Police Department helicopter.
The helicopter pilot spotted the small, unmanned aircraft near the George Washington Bridge early Monday, police said. The drone suddenly ascended from 200 feet to 2,000 feet and continued to circle the bridge, police said, forcing the helicopter to change course to avoid the drone.
The pilot watched the aircraft land on a parked vehicle and called the 34th Precinct. Responding officers confiscated two remote-controlled drones, one of which had a camera and an SD memory card, police said. Wilkins Mendoza, 34, and Remy Castro, 23, both of Manhattan, were arrested.
Mendoza and Castro spent Monday night in jail. They were arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday on charges of reckless endangerment in the first degree, a felony that can carry a penalty of up to seven years in prison. They were released on their own recognizance.
According to the criminal complaint, the drone was flying in an area restricted to NYPD aircraft and, if the drone had hit a helicopter blade, "it could have damaged the flight mechanism of the helicopter, thereby preventing it from continuing its flight."
Defense attorney Michael Kushner said the charges seemed unreasonable.
“They’re trying to put a square into a round peg,” Kushner told the Los Angeles Times. “They are saying my clients had a deliberate indifference to human life. But it was as though my clients were flying a kite at midnight, nothing else.”
He said the factory settings on the drones, both DJI Phantom II models, won’t let them go above 360 feet. The drone that had the near-miss with the helicopter didn’t have a camera, he said, so his clients couldn’t have purposely flown it in the chopper’s way.
Kushner said he thought his clients were charged to prove some larger point about the lack of regulation of civilian drones, not because they did anything wrong.
The Manhattan district attorney's office declined to comment on the case.
The Federal Aviation Administration hasn't set standards for certifying the safety of civilian drones, and efforts to provide drones with regular access to U.S. skies face significant hurdles.
Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, said the case exemplified some of the problems in the lack of regulation for civilian drones. He noted that the men were charged with reckless endangerment rather than criminal negligence.
“You have to figure out whether the people who put the drones into play really intended for this to occur,” Calo said. “If someone is purposely flying a drone by an NYPD helicopter, they would get in trouble the same way they would if they threw a rock at the helicopter, but it's harder to prove because you need to find out the state of the perpetrator’s mind.”
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