L.A. city attorney files first criminal charges under new drone ordinance

Drone Photo

A drone lands after filming a scene on the set of “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” in Santa Clarita. On Wednesday, Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer filed the first criminal charges against civilian drone operators under a new ordinance passed last year.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times )

Two men accused of flying drones in the vicinity of a hospital and police heliports will be the first to face criminal charges under Los Angeles’ new drone restrictions, the city attorney’s office said Wednesday.

Michael Ponce, 20, and Arvel Chappel, 35, each could face up to six months in jail for violating the ordinance, City Atty. Mike Feuer said in a news release.

The new ordinance, which the City Council unanimously approved in October, makes it a misdemeanor to fly a drone more than 500 feet in the air, within five miles of an airport without permission or within 25 feet of another person. 

The ordinance closely resembles the Federal Aviation Administration’s civilian drone flight regulations. Prior to passage of the legislation, offenders faced fines and the loss of their drone if they violated the federal rules, but they rarely were threatened with jail time.


“Operating a drone near trafficked airspace places pilots and the public at serious risk,” Feuer said in a statement. “We’ll continue to use our new City law to hold drone operators accountable and keep our residents safe.” 

Feuer’s announcement came just hours after the West Hollywood City Council approved new restrictions on drone usage that will require civilian pilots to register their aircraft with city officials, in addition to the requirement that the drones be registered with the FAA.

Violators there also could be charged with a misdemeanor.

On Dec. 12, city prosecutors say Chappel’s drone forced an LAPD air unit to change its landing path when he flew a device within a quarter-mile of the Hooper Heliport downtown. Days earlier, Ponce was cited for flying a drone within three miles of several hospital heliports in Griffith Park.


The drones were seized in both cases. 

Drone usage has become an increasingly combative issue in Southern California in recent months.

One of the devices interfered with first-responders who were trying to drop water and fire retardant at the scene of a wildfire in the Cajon Pass last summer, leading two lawmakers to draft a bill that would have given firefighters immunity for damaging drones during an emergency situation. 

The bill was one of three drone-related measures vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in Southern California.


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