This is a story that has it’s origins back in early September but has been on my plate since Christmas Eve. It is a story that is still in the process of being written therefore this article will not be totally complete until the gavel has hit the desk. This will be long, very, very long so you may want to pour a second cup of coffee and have a third brewing.
So anyway, I have owned my DJI Phantom quadcopter for a couple years. During that time I have equipped it with a GoPro camera allowing me to capture beautiful aerial views of various areas. On our 2015 western road trip I packed it up in it’s hard shell case hoping to get some nice footage of the breath taking venues in the western United States.
One of the places I flew briefly was in Yellowstone Park on the second of the two days we spent in the park. The flight was perhaps a total of 5 minutes in length and took place in a deserted area in the northwest corner of the park on our way out of the park en route to Idaho. The aerial footage was scenic but uneventful. The most interesting part of it all was when the drone bounced upon landing and had a gust of wind blow it a few feet down a small hill. The footage was edited down to around 90 seconds and I posted it to YouTube when I got back from the trip, just as I posted most of my other aerial videos.
So the story now fast forwards in time to Christmas Eve, more than three and a half months later. As I was driving around trying to get some last minute Christmas shopping done I noticed several calls coming in from a Wyoming number. I did not answer the phone as I generally do not answer unknown numbers to avoid unwanted solicitations. This happened three or four times and each time the individual on the other end chose to not leave a voicemail message. It was very odd that somebody so interested in speaking to me would not leave a message so the next time the call came through curiosity got the better of me and I answered it, fully prepared to hang up on the person as soon as I heard what they were selling.
Well the man on the other line identified himself. He said he was a park ranger and he asked if I minded if he asked me a few questions regarding my drone flight I had posted in YouTube. Wow now my curiosity was really peaked, I had no idea why he would be calling about the flight, the quickest explanation that popped into my head was he was looking for permission to use the video elsewhere, a request I have had with other YouTube video content of mine. So I said sure, go ahead although I was still confused about the whole thing, it was bizarre. Well it got a lot more bizarre in the next 10 minutes.
So the ranger started asking me for some details of the flight like what date, time, and location the flight took place. I was in the car still during the call so I had no specific details just vague estimates since it was over 3 months ago. He asked more things like was there anyone else around, whose car was in the video and other specifics which did not seem to make sense. Why would he care about these things?
So I stopped and asked him why he was asking all of these questions. After he has asked me enough questions to thoroughly entrap myself he then tells me that it is against park violations to launch or land a drone within national park boundaries. I was silent for a second as the reality of that moment sunk in. I immediately told the ranger I had absolutely no idea that there was a restriction on drone flights. I saw no information at the park regarding it. I emphasized that if I knew there was a ban there was absolutely no way I would have flown, it isn’t worth it.
As the ranger listened to me he offered up that he believed that I did not know about the ban ahead of time but he still had to file a citation for the offense. Say what??? When he first mentioned it was a violation I assumed, ok, he is going to warn me to never do it again and to remove the video from YouTube which seemed appropriate. Surely his call alone was more than enough to ensure I never fly inside park boundaries again, if that was truly the goal. I paused for a few seconds, fighting back the anger reflex that wanted to lash out at the ranger about the abandonment of common sense when it came to the situation. A citation, for a flight with no park impact not witnessed by any park ranger outside of YouTube, 3 months post, with fuzzy dates, times and locations. You have to be kidding me.
Ok so I tried to calm down and gather my thoughts. I told the ranger that I didn’t understand. I said if he believed I had no prior knowledge of the ban and he agreed that nothing destructive or dangerous occurred during the flight, why would a warning not be an appropriate course of action? He indicated he had “no choice” (bullshit), and that he was not required to prove I had prior knowledge of the ban, only that a flight took place.
I again indicated this did not make sense to me. I asked for clarification about this rule and where park visitors are notified about it. The ranger said it was “in the news” a lot when the ban was enacted in late 2014 and that there is signage posted at certain points in the park. When I asked for specifics about where the signage was placed he could not give me the details. Again, it wasn’t their job to make sure I knew.
The only thing the ranger offered up was that perhaps the judge would side with me and would agree a warning was appropriate. The ranger completed ruining my Christmas Eve by saying normally you are required to appear in person in front of a federal judge for NPS citations but since I live so far away the court would PROBABLY allow me to appear via phone. The ranger said I should receive paperwork in the mail regarding the citation and I should expect to have my court date in early February some time. Before hanging up the ranger asked if there were any other questions he could answer for me. Of course I could not ask what I really wanted to know, why the National Park Service has nothing better to do on Christmas Eve than surf YouTube to retroactively cite people for poorly communicated park restrictions of violations where no people, animals, or park property were negatively impacted whatsoever. Instead, I said no and hung up the phone shortly before getting back home. I was literally in shell shock.
So the first thing I did was delete the video on YouTube as obviously I didn’t want to post footage of something that I now knew was a banned activity. The next thing I did was a lot of internet research on the park drone ban. As is often the case it came about due to a few people doing stupid things. One drone pilot crashed into Yellowstone Lake and then asked park rangers for assistance in retrieving it. But the most egregious offense was a German tourist who crashed his drone into a famous Yellowstone Geyser. The drone sunk to the bottom of the geyser and was never retrieved. Park officials are concerned that as the materials inside the drone break down, especially the battery , it will permanently change the appearance of the geyser.
Although I hate that a few careless drone operators had ruined it for thousands of other drone hobbyists, I can understand how incidents like that would cause a reaction from the NPS that resulted in the ban. But in my situation, there were circumstances different from any other documented case I found online and there were only a handful. In the cases I found online a park ranger was directly involved in the incident and there was some sort of impact on park property, people or animals. (another guy buzzed bison and flew around a bunch of tourists near a geyser)
So anyway the rest of Christmas Eve and Christmas were tainted by the rangers phone call. Despite trying my best to enjoy myself I had this situation weighing on me heavily. As an adult I have not had so much as a speeding ticket. To be told I may need to appear in front of a federal judge for a federal citation was a big deal to me. For the next several days I slept terribly with the incident gnawing at my mind. I was angry at myself for being trusting/naive enough to give the ranger the information he needed. I was angry that park rangers have so little going on that they surf internet media sites looking for ways to cite visitors and I had tremendous anxiety not knowing what the end result of it all would be.
So I contacted a friend of mine from the running club that is a lawyer, an estate/probate lawyer, but a lawyer nonetheless. I recanted the situation to him and asked him if this is even possible, to cite someone via YouTube and contact them via cell phone calls instead of through official channels like mail. The lawyer said he had never heard of either practice, YouTube policing or prosecution via cell phone. He advised me to just sit tight and see if anything ever shows up in the mail.
For about three weeks that is exactly what I did, sit tight and hope the park ranger office realized they were being unreasonable. Nothing ever arrived in the mail but then the calls started again. I did not bother to answer them this time as I figured if there was something I needed to actually deal with they would actually leave a message. After some hang ups over a couple days a message was finally left. It was from another park ranger, although they like to identify themselves as law enforcement officers on the phone. The ranger asked me to call him back to talk about details about the case and what the prosecutor was recommending.
After talking to my lawyer buddy again I decided I should just ignore cell phone contacts going forward. If they wanted to move forward with this capricious enforcement case let them do so though certified mail like any normal law enforcement agency does. So the day after I make that decision I get ANOTHER voicemail but instead of Wyoming, this number was a local 239 area code. It was from a female park ranger from Everglades National Park. In the message she indicated she had the Yellowstone citation and needed to deliver it in person. Well now that a nearby agency was involved I felt like I needed to respond.
I called the woman back. I asked her why the citation had to be hand delivered instead of sent through the mail. She said it had to be handed to me by a ranger. It was like somehow her handing me a citation now was the same as a park ranger catching me in the act in Yellowstone four months ago? It seemed stupid. I told her to just meet me at work in the parking lot. The female ranger arrived with her short male partner, fully decked out in thick chest pad armor and weapons holstered on each hip. I tried to engage the woman about the situation and explain why it seemed so ridiculous. She said she was only the messenger and little else. Sorry, I thought you were a NPS law enforcement officer as well.
When I went back in the office a new wave of anger flowed through me. I could hardly believe my federal tax dollars were being used to pay for my own prosecution of a non-event captured on YouTube, 3 months after it occurred. I was also amazed at the citation itself that had not one shred of accurate date or time information on it. Why would time and date of a violation be insignificant? The citation stated the violation occurred on September 10th at 6:46 PM. I was not even in the park at that point, we had driven back to Cody, WY for the night.
So in addition to the citation I was given information regarding the court out in Yellowstone, including the contact information for the prosecutor for the case. I decided to call him. Once he pulled up my case info he told me he had some good news and bad news. The good news was the I should not be required to appear in person, a phone appearance will be acceptable. The bad news was the “standard” fine in this sort of offense is $1035 This was the first time I heard an actual dollar figure thrown out regarding my violation, to have that number be four digits long was not expected. I again gave background on the circumstances of the incident and how I had zero knowledge of the ban. The prosecutor said he also believed I did not know but said he had no responsibility either, just like the park rangers, to prove I knew I was violating the law.
He apparently had the ranger that was so kind as to ruin my Christmas in the office, evidently park citations are big business. The ranger indicated that all park visitors are supposed to be handed a newspaper that mentions the drone ban on the front page. I told them I did not recall being handed any newspaper but I would check with my girlfriend since she kept EVERYTHING from the trip. I later confirmed we did not get a paper. I took pictures of what we were handed and emailed them to the prosecutor. He responded back that he would talk further to the ranger about the case. It was the first shred of good news I had heard. I held out hope that perhaps common sense could actually prevail and they would decide to drop the citation.
Well after a couple weeks of hearing nothing I followed up with the prosecutor who then said the rangers office should be getting back to me. Ok great, hopefully this was good news! It took me a week to get in touch with them after some phone tag. I was not happy with the outcome of the conversation. The ranger acted like I never sent the pictures to the prosecutor, he instead wanted to encourage me to take a plea deal. In exchange for pleading guilty the prosecutor would recommend a $1035 dollar fine that broke down to a $500 fine, a $500 community service donation to Yellowstone and $35 in court costs. This was officially all about the money and nothing else. They make the fine small enough that it is not practical to hire a lawyer but large enough to both cause significant financial pain to people as well as funnel healthy chunks of money into the park service, one citation at a time. I was so frustrated. Obviously this case had nothing to do with educating drone hobbyist about the flight restriction and curbing future behavior, it is all a shakedown for money.
So my anger was stoked again to a high level after the call with the ranger. Despite the refusal of the NPS to use what I would consider a common sense approach to this point I went through an email exchange with the the ranger, trying to back up my claim that this was an unreasonable citation. In my emails I included a link to an article in “High Country News” from July 2015 where the subject was the drone ban in parks. In the article a park employee from nearby Grand Teton park said that despite the drone ban being in place since late 2014, there have been more drone flights in parks in 2015. He explained a large part of this as “many people just don’t know about the ban in national parks” Later in the article it states, “In most parks, rangers have adopted a solicitous approach. They respond to sightings (usually called in by other visitors or park employees), then try to find the pilots once the machine is on the ground, and gently inform them of the ban. Most hobbyists have been receptive to it. Citations are generally only issued when drone operators have “noncompliant attitudes,” or if the incident is especially egregious.” Obviously this is not the attitude of Yellowstone park rangers who instead appear to put a priority on maximizing park citation revenue by searching social media for retroactive violations.
I also included the article that documented a drone case from October 2014 where a tourist was flying his drone around a crowded tourist area near a geyser basin. In addition he flew his drone around a nearby group of bison which could spook the animals and send them charging. This man was fined the same $1035 that was being proposed for my situation which seemed totally not congruent. The ranger was not very receptive to my attempts to illustrate the holes in the logic being used in this situation.
I also had contact with a lawyer in the Miami area I know from my calisthenics contacts. He specializes in traffic citation defense but I got his opinion on my situation. I even went as far as contacting two Wyoming lawyers to explain my situation and see if it was worth fighting. Although both lawyers agreed the circumstances around the citation seem shady and possibly winnable, the bottom line was I would spend more fighting the ticket (significantly more)than paying the fine. Sure it would be nice to fight the ticket in the name of principal but I don’t have enough disposable income to throw at a cause to simply prove a point. My frustrating conclusion was I would accept the plea deal and use my opportunity to make a “mitigating statement” to the judge, explaining my side of the story to hopefully at least get the fine reduced.
Ever since the call on Christmas Eve, which I still think was totally unnecessary and very inconsiderate of the ranger, I have had this hanging in the back of my mind. My phone appearance was scheduled for March 3rd, yesterday. I made my appearance in my office with the door closed. The judge actually was handling three cases at once, one other drone violation and a DUI case. I found it interesting that the other drone defendant was evidently also “apprehended” via YouTube. This guy seemingly did know about the drone restriction as he tried to spice up his YouTube video for more hits, naming it something like “Merica, drones banned in national parks” with a pic of a drone flying at Mt Rushmore. He admitted to the judge it was a stupid thing to do, the judge agreed.
So I had typed up a little more than a page long mitigating statement that I initially planned to read at the appropriate time. Since there were two other defendants involved I didn’t feel right about reading the entire thing. Instead I just made my two main points, I had no idea about the drone ban going in and that the fine seems out of whack compared to the tourist/geyser/bison buzzing guy that was fined the same as being proposed for me.
I have to be honest I was surprised that the judge actually did seem to have an open mind. I had sort of assumed no matter what I would say I was going to be railroaded into the recommended $1035 fine. Instead the judge used my mitigating statements as a basis to reduce my fine by $250 less than the prosecutor recommended, a luxury not provided to my fellow drone enthusiast. Although it was not nearly as satisfying as a complete dismissal would be it offered me some sense that at least some common sense was finally utilized in this ordeal, which was absent from the NPS or prosecutor offices. I thanked the judge for the additional consideration before the call was terminated.
Almost as soon as the call was over I managed to track down my co-defendant on Facebook and started a conversation with him comparing notes. He too got the ridiculous Christmas Eve call and he too was presented with a citation with random incident details. Like me he would have liked to fight the citation but financial reality curtailed his efforts as well. It was somewhat therapeutic to at least talk with someone else that has been subjected to the same treatment by the NPS.
At this point I now have to satisfy my $750 tab to the government/NPS. This experience has really been an eye opener about just how government agencies can prey upon the public, resorting to social media policing, personal cell phone calls and whatever else is needed to protect the world from those dangerous drone hobbyists. It makes me proud to know that our tax dollars were utilized to prosecute criminals such as myself. I will surely sleep better at night.