The Dangers of Drones Were Regulated Before the FAA Noticed Them

In December, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a new rule criminalizing the flight of recreational drones and model aircraft unless the owner first registers with the federal government. As of February 19, 2016, any unregistered drone owner operating a craft that weighs more than 0.55 pounds is committing a federal felony punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and $277,500 in civil and criminal fines. This is an alarming instance of overcriminalization, made all the worse because it is unnecessary—drones may be relatively new, but the same cannot be said for their known harms or risks. A plethora of existing laws lay out criminal and civil penalties that adequately address these harms. Drones should not be treated as categorically different than other devices and objects capable of inflicting injury or violating privacy, and policymakers should resist the temptation to treat them so.

Mass-market recreational drones are relatively new, but their potential harms and risks—whether to one’s person, property, or privacy—are neither unique nor novel. Federal statutes and regulations, as well as numerous state criminal and civil laws, can adequately redress these harms without the need for new, drone-specific laws in most circumstances. The FAA’s drone owners’ registration requirement is, in actuality, little more than an unjustified solicitation and publication of personal information, with draconian civil and criminal penalties for non-compliance.

A better path forward would be to let drone technology evolve. As new use problems and situations develop, lawmakers can evaluate their impact. Local, state, and federal policymakers should promulgate new regulations or enact new laws only where truly novel harms arise.

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