Should someone who flies a drone near a wildfire be charged with murder if someone dies in that fire? At least one California District Attorney is insisting he’s going to bring such charges should that situation occur.

It’s wildfire season out here in California, and the story of the summer seems to be about drones and wildfires. There have been a whole bunch of stories about private drones somehow interfering with firefighting aircraft. The stories are almost always extremely vague with very few details. It’s entirely possible that these stories are completely accurate — and I certainly don’t deny that it’s possible that a drone could interfere with firefighting aircraft in some manner. However, something about these stories really has the feel of your typical local news exaggeration/moral panic. The coverage is always by local TV news reporters. The details are slim, but the moral panic aspect is ratcheted up quite high.

And… soon after, politicians and grandstanding law enforcement get involved. I have no problem with something like an education campaign about the potential dangers of flying drones near wildfires and how they could hinder firefighting efforts. That seems perfectly reasonable. But politicians are not just looking to educate, they’re offering a $75,000 bounty for identifying such drone operators and proposing a new law that would make flying a drone over a forest fire a federal offense with fines and up to five years in prison.

And… that’s not all. In the press release from San Bernadino County that offers up that $75,000 bounty, the local District Attorney Mike Ramos says that he’ll go after drone operators with murder charges if people die in a fire “due to” the drone operations:

District Attorney Mike Ramos warned drone operators that they could and would be prosecuted for murder if their drones led to the death of a fire-fighting flight crew or anyone on the ground.

Of course, determining that a drone “led to the death” of anyone seems like a pretty big stretch — and as far as I can tell, in all of the hysteria of drones and wildfires in the last month or so, there have been no deaths at all. But it seems like a huge stretch to argue that flying a drone over a fire can lead to murder charges. In the past, murder charges related to fires have been focused on things like arsonists who deliberately set the fire, rather than those who were just looking to observe or film the fire, and through their own ignorance got in the way of firefighting efforts.

Again, this isn’t to diminish the possibility of real risks and potential damages from drones interfering with firefighters, but so much of this reads like a typical local news moral panic, and tossing in the threat of murder charges for flying a personal drone to observe a wild fire seems to go beyond any sense of reason. It feels like law enforcement issuing a bogus threat to try to sound serious.


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