By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Multiple representatives in the Wyoming House have experienced trespass by drone, leading some to endorse a law that would make the activity a crime.
State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said he’s excited to develop legislation criminalizing drone trespass, which is the act of flying a remote-controlled aircraft over another’s property, especially in a way that invades privacy.
Some of his eagerness to confront the issue stems from being “a person who has had other people flying drones over their property, and not been very happy about it,” said Zwonitzer.
In similar story to an account told last week by House Majority Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, Zwonitzer related that a drone flew over his home near Cheyenne in January while he was not home but his spouse was.
Zwonitzer added that his spouse knew the drone was flying low because it could be heard before it even came into view.
He believed it was there for “nefarious purposes,” said Zwonitzer, speculating that people with political motives could have been using the drone to snoop. But the trouble, he added, is that a drone can’t be asked why it is on someone’s property.
“You can’t yell at someone to get off your place when it’s a drone,” he said. “If they drove up to your property you could say ‘Hey you’re trespassing; I need you to leave.’”
Drones don’t allow for direct conversations.
“It sure felt like a personal invasion of privacy,” he said.
Zwonitzer clarified that he hasn’t envisioned what any bill might look like yet because he and the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which he co-chairs, still have to explore relevant factors, Federal Aviation Administration guidelines and other issues.
While there are reasons other than political snooping that may motivate a drone-operator to send a drone over someone else’s farm, said Zwonitzer, he still wishes his options to confront it had been less “murky” in the eyes of the law.
“I had a drone flying over my property and I couldn’t shoot it down, and I didn’t know what my options were,” he said. “I think it’s good to work on clarifying the law.”
Though subject to prosecutor discretion, Wyoming law regards drone-shooting as property destruction.
Sommers sponsored a bill during the Legislature’s recent budget session designed to put restrictions on the operations of drones over private property. He withdrew the bill before its introduction so it could be crafted after more study in the Judiciary Committee this interim.
Sommers said his desire for the bill stemmed in part from the fact that one day when he was not at home but his wife was, a “drone came right at our kitchen window.”
“If I’d been home that day I would have shot that drone down,” he told Cowboy State Daily earlier this month.
Harassing the Wildlife
Another House delegate, Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, told Cowboy State Daily that hunters on his land have witnessed drones haranguing wildlife.
Neiman had co-sponsored Sommers’ bill this winter.
Neiman told Cowboy State Daily that a public highway runs through his property, and “I’ve had, actually, people park on the highway and send a drone loose, over my hayfields, over my property to look at wildlife. And they’re too low.”
Neiman said the drones are chasing deer and other wildlife, but as unmanned aircraft they’re impossible to confront, and often will retreat to their owners’ vehicles when they “see” someone approaching.
In November, said Neiman, he heard the “high-pitched squealing” of a drone cresting a neighbor’s hill, “racing” onto his own property, and “running deer when my hunters were here, trying to harvest deer.”
Many hunters, including children just learning the sport, pay a fee to hunt on Neiman’s land, he said, which helps to recoup the cost of feeding and overseeing the wildlife who frequent it.
“I don’t mind if you look at stuff,” using a drone, Neiman said, “but interfering with a quality hunting experience and molesting the wildlife” is problematic.
A Wyoming Game and Fish regulation forbids game-scouting by drone.
Neiman speculated that pilots sending drones over his property are pursuing a variety of goals, including “just having fun,” viewing wildlife for enjoyment, and scouting game.
Neiman said he He said he envisioned legislation that would promote mutual respect: for drone-fliers to respect property rights and privacy, and for landowners to respect drones as someone’s property as well.
“A lot of times folks don’t realize the responsibility they have to make sure they’re not affecting someone’s private property,” said Neiman, adding that in most cases, fliers are just seeking “fun, and they don’t perceive they’re bothering anybody.”
On the other hand, he added, as drones become cheaper and more prevalent, extra care should be taken to ensure that they don’t disturb domestic livestock and wildlife.
“That’s the whole point of private property rights and asking for permission,” said Neiman. “Respect other people’s stuff.”