Journalist Sues CT Police Who Grounded His Drone (Phantom 2 Vision)

Issues with Drone JournalismPhoto Credit: Pedro Rivera

Every time there’s an idiot out there that does something to screw up this hobby and potentially my photography/video profession, I tend to take it personally. There was the Fool in Manhattan, another random nitwit flying over a crowd of people, and now our current journalist friend here. Thank you Mr. Pedro Rivera for bringing QuadCopters and Drone Photography into the public eye once again under a negative light.

The story goes like this: Mr. Pedro Rivera works as a freelance journalist (does that mean unemployed?) for WFSB Television in Connecticut. He was flying his little plastic toy Phantom 2 Vision over the site of a fatal accident scene; with a dead body still on site. The Hartford, CT Police Department were concerned for the victim’s privacy and in their attempt to control the accident site they asked him to stop flying in the area. Police then questioned Rivera and he was allowed to leave. He stated to police that he was not filming/photographing as a journalist for WFSB Television, but as a private citizen. Right, sure. He’s chasing accidents with a Phantom because he’s got nothing better to do with his time. I feel sorry for his family then. The only ID he had on his person was his WFSB TV ID card.

Turns out WFSB Television saw it fit to suspend Pedro Rivera for a week, while Connecticut Police investigated whether he did anything illegal. The police informed news agencies that they were concerned about officer safety as well as the possibility of the drone intruding on the victim’s privacy. Valid points – no family wants to see journalist post bodies of their dead relatives — anywhere or any time. What about public safety though guys? Rivera was flying in a populated area on a busy street with cars, pedestrians, accident victim(s), and emergency personnel running around. Not the best place to put a 2.5 lb flying white (potential) falling rock 200 feet into the air (the altitude he was allegedly flying at).

In response, Rivera hired Norm Pattis – a Connecticut lawyer who’s specialty is civil rights violations, to file a lawsuit for lost wages and damages. So that could cost the CT PD $300 maybe, as the guys photos don’t look too good and his reasoning for being where he was seems pretty flawed. Think I’m going a little hard on him? As I said, the guy’s actions offend me as a MultiRotor pilot and photographer. He ended up making National headlines with this stunt. Fools get attention in these here parts.

I will now entertain you with quotes from Pedro Rivera and my responses to his statements in Bold.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. I wasn’t charged, I didn’t violate anything. They went after my job,” Rivera said referencing the Police. “I think what happened to me falls in the category of the war on cameras by the police. Whenever the police are videotaped, they try to detain people and confiscate the camera.” – Yes Mr. Rivera, you did violate something. There are laws that protect public safety. For example I can legally own a bow and arrow, but I can’t legally go out in front of my home and shoot that arrow straight into the air — because it could land on someone. The Police, however much they piss me off, have an obligation to control an accident scene and provide services that insure public safety. So, though there are no local laws specifically regulating you to not fly your toy over populated areas, emergency personnel, and accident scenes – but I must argue that it can be inferred from other existing laws that operating a Phantom 2 Vision in the manner which you did, probably violates some sort of public safety law that I hope the Hartford District Attorney finds and applies to this case. The FAA outlines their stance on that matter here. Furthermore – NO, this does not fall into the fictional war on cameras by police, as there is no such war. I’d know as I make my living as a photographer. Perhaps the Police have a war on bloodsucking “journalists” that exercise selfishly poor judgement thereby placing others needlessly in harm’s way.

“As long as we’re persistent, I hope in five years that this will be common,” said Rivera. – If people like you persistently do things that lack sound judgement in order to fulfill your own very selfish motives, then in five years what will be common are a great number of restrictions to the use of personal Drones, Quadcopters, and MultiRotors in general. The restrictions will be even worse for Journalists. I don’t want idiots with flying machines to become a common thing.

“Last I checked, this was not a police state,” Rivera wrote in a note. “Fly safe and responsible, but do not allow anyone to stop your freedom or right to cover events, or something as simple as your satisfaction of flying high.” – …and that’s why we are going be hit with some strong laws regarding private and commercial Drone usage — because Mr. Rivera thinks that he was flying in a safe and responsible manner. Flying is not a right, that’s your first mistake sir. It is a privilege that comes with a high level of responsibility, which most people just don’t grasp until something goes terribly wrong. When flying any type of machine of any size (barring paper airplanes), you must always consider the worst case scenario and weigh it against the reward for the flight you will undertake. Worst case when flying a 2.5 pound DJI Phantom Vision over a populated area = something fails and it falls straight down out of the sky and injures a person in a freakishly serious manner (prop in eye, baby in carriage, etc..). Upside to Mr. Rivera’s flight operation = he gets to show his news team or friends pretty pictures he took at a fatal accident scene. Risk does not equal reward, in my opinion – and the situation begs the question: Does Mr. Pedro Rivera actually have the right to decide that it’s OK to put complete strangers under this sort of potential risk? I think not, and I believe that many attorneys would agree with me.

What does one actual attorney say?

“The act of creating expressive or newsworthy content, including the taking of photographs from public spaces, is protected by the First Amendment regardless of the equipment used,” said Brendan Schulman, a New York lawyer. “Some state legislators who recently have proposed blanket legislation restricting drone photography appear to have overlooked First Amendment considerations. I am surprised that news agencies have not been more proactive about this issue, as important rights are at stake in the regulatory process.”

FAA regulations currently state that unmanned aircraft cannot be operated for commercial use. Hartford Police stated, “The presence of a drone at a crime scene for journalistic purposes is in violation of FAA regulations.” While Mr. Rivera denies that he was working as a journalist at the time he was flying, this author seriously doubts that he’s telling the truth. Unless a person has some sick fascination with crime scenes, there’s not really any good reason to give the police and medical personnel working on scene anything else to deal with. As a human being, I myself can tell that “hey, maybe this is a little inappropriate, you know – flying my toy over a dead person and a bunch of cops and EMTs.” But as we well know, many journalists aren’t human. Just turn on the TV for proof.

So, the BIG question remains: Should reporters have a First Amendment right to use drones? Maybe. But if so, they should be required by very strong laws to adhere to very specific operating parameters in this pilot’s opinion. Safety should always be the number one priority.

More photos by Mr. Pedro Rivera that demonstrate that he’s clearly willing to fly over people, cars, and buildings: