Trespass, drone incidents prompt discussion
SALISBURY, Md. — Statutes regarding trespassers on private property are well-established, but when it comes to drones flying over a property, a group of legal experts told concerned chicken farmers the regulations are well behind the technology’s capabilities.
With multiple recent reports of suspicious vehicles and drones flying near and on poultry farms, the Extension services in Maryland and Delaware held a meeting Oct. 26 to review the legalities of trespassing and what property owners can do and should not do when they see an unknown drone above their land.
“We’re seeing people stopping at the farm. We’re seeing drones fly over farms so we do have some issues on that,” said Dr. Jonathan Moyle, University of Maryland Extension poultry specialist.
Paul Goeringer, University of Maryland Extension legal specialist said the laws for trespassing are pretty cut and dry.
In Maryland, there are four ways to criminally trespass; occupy property that is clearly posted with signage, driving onto private property without permission, returning to or remaining on private property after being warned by the owner or tenant and entering cultivated, cleared or planted land without permission. Goeringer said marking property boundaries with signage or colors, especially at any entrances, “as long as it clearly denotes they can’t go inside the property” is often a good protectie practice.
The penalty is 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.
Delaware’s statue specifically mentions animal agriculture and carries a stiffer penalty — 1 year in prison and/or $2,300 fine
“Delaware clearly sets apart livestock facilities and poultry is part of that,” Goeringer said.
Law enforcement officers at the meeting said along with trespassing, there is a harassment offense deemed by “continuous course of conduct meant to annoy.”
In either case, a good first step is to call local law enforcement before engaging with an offender.
“Your best bet is to call us when it’s happening,” said Lieutenant John Alessandrini of the Wicomico County Sherrif’s Office. “If you can get information without putting yourself at harm, we can help there, too.”
Moyle reemphasized the importance of not getting into harm’s way.
“Don’t do something stupid that’s going to hurt yourself of someone else,” he said.
Legal precedent doesn’t deem aerial photos a trespass but with drones capable of hovering close to buildings and next to windows, as if someone were walking through the property, Annapolis attorney Anthony Gorski said the old rules don’t take into account the ability of new technology.
“The courts haven’t caught up with the technology yet, the state legislatures aren’t touching it,” he said.
“If you’re not higher than I can throw a stick at, I think you’re trespassing. That’s where I think this needs to go.”
He said he expects drone regulation to unfold through lawsuits and resulting court decisions, which will likely take several years.
“That’s the only way this is going to get resolved,” he said.
Most states, including Maryland defer to federal regulations when it comes to drone flight, Gorski said.
Regarding drone flights, a major distinction is whether it’s recreational or non-recreational. Recreational flying is exempt from getting a Federal Aviation Administration Certified Operator license.
“They make it clear that if you’re doing something other than having fun you don’t get the recreational exemption,” Gorski said.
Gorski recommend as a first step to try to identify who owns the drone.
“Get some sort of communication going with the owner and ask them to stop,” he said. “Certainly if it lands on your property you’re able to take it and show it to police.”
Communication could be a phone call, registered letter or go through an attorney, he said.
Certified operators must broadcast a signal that identifies their drone when it’s in flight, which could be used to determine who is controlling a suspicious drone. To that end, signal jamming devices are on the market that can interfere with a drone’s flight over a property.
First Sargent Burley Williams, who pilots the Wicomico Sheriff’s Office’s drone, said if you can safely track the drone back to it’s take off point, you can possibly identify the pilot that way.
In any case, Gorski said shooting at a drone or attempting to damage it is not advised.
“Don’t shoot at it,” he said several times. “Just don’t do it. You’re not allowed to do it. The problems that will come from that are just not worth it.”