How to Fly a Drone without Getting Arrested

Flying a drone in California
Getting a drone as a splurge gift this holiday season probably makes you the envy of your social circle. Your first rule for demonstrating savvy operation is to steer clear of violating federal and state regulations or local ordinances while flying your drone.

Drones give us a spectacular lineup of creative commercial and hobby uses, but you have an obligation to stay within a sometimes confusing and changing array of drone regulations. Unintentional violations can land you a hefty fine and/or some jail time.

The FAA, expecting that seven million drones – or Unmanned Aircraft Systems – will be in operation within the next 3 years, released a new set of operational rules on August 20, 2016. California passed new laws this year amending both civil and penal codes to include drones, and the Orange County grand jury is encouraging every city in the county to adopt its own drone ordinances that carry fines and/or jail time.

Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations require that you register your drone online if it:

  • weighs more than .55 pounds and less than 55 pounds on takeoff
  • you plan to operate it outdoors.

The weight limits include anything you attach to the drone. A UAS weighing over 55 pounds generally requires traditional aircraft registration.

Failing to register your drone is no small oversight. The FAA can impose civil penalties of up to $27,000 and criminal fines of up to $250,000 and/or up to 3 years in prison.

Keep yourself within federal and California drone laws while flying by:

  • Registering your drone with the FAA
  • Staying below 400 feet
  • Keeping your drone within your visual line of site
  • Staying more than 25 feet from people not involved in the operation of your drone
  • Flying sober – don’t fly your drone while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Not attaching any weapons or pyrotechnic devices to your drone
  • Avoiding interference with all manned aircraft
  • Not flying within 5 miles of airport or restricted airspace
  • Not flying your drone into a scene where emergency personnel are actively operating. Violating California’s AB 1680, related to interfering with emergency personal, only requires that your drone be present at the scene, even if you yourself are not physically there.

Be sure to take the time to check local ordinances about drone use within the Orange County city you intend to operate your drone, as well as the nearby cities or county. Keep in mind you may be subject to the ordinances of areas into which your drone flies whether or not you are physically in that location.

The FAA has released a holiday-timed video on how to fly your drone safely. The agency also offers a smartphone app that keeps you up to the minute on airspace restrictions. You can download the FAA’s B4UFLY app on their website.

With the array of new regulations and the increase in sales of drones for both recreation and commercial purposes, we’ll undoubtedly be seeing unwitting violations and arrests for reckless or illegal drone operation.


If you have questions about any criminal matter, call the Law Offices of David A. Stein.  Mr. Stein is a skilled criminal defense attorney with a track record of obtaining very successful outcomes for his clients. His offices are in Irvine, and he handles criminal charges in all Orange County cities.