Drone pilot Arvel Chappell found not guilty in first Los Angeles criminal drone use trial

Arvel Chappell

Courtesy Arvel Chappell

A Los Angeles jury returned a unanimous “not guilty” verdict in favor of Arvel Chappell III, the first person charged under the City of Los Angeles’ recently enacted anti-drone ordinance. The case was the first to go to trial on a drone-specific criminal charge in the city.

The verdict was delivered Tuesday, particularly significant because it came on the same day that the Federal Aviation Administration  released long-anticipated rules that now allow the commercial use of small drones without special permission.

35-year-old Chappell is a filmmaker and was accused of  flying a drone near the Los Angeles Police Department’s heliport on December 12, 2015. The flight forced a police helicopter coming in for a landing to change course to avoid a collision.

The City Attorney said Chappell was flying the drone higher than 400 feet, at night and within a quarter of the heliport without permission.

Given the increasing popularity of civilian and commercial drone use, Chappell’s cause gained significant support among the filmmaking, aerospace industry,  retail and shipping industries—all of which want local ordinances set aside so that the federal government can continue to develop national regulations that safely incorporate drone technologies into people’s day-to-day existence.

“All along, I’ve maintained that I would never do anything to put a fellow aviator in harm’s way, so this verdict validates that,” said Chappell, a filmmaker and aerospace engineer.  “And now that the judge has ordered the City to return my drone, I can continue my filmmaking,” Chappell added.  Ironically, Chappell’s most recent film—Compton: The Antwon Ross Story—is the story of a young African American male who turns to aviation as a means of avoiding getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

See a preview for that film here:

Videos on Chappell’s site indicate he has used drones numerous times in the past for his filmmaking.

The jury’s “not guilty” verdict brings to a close a long legal battle between Chappell and the City of Los Angeles, during which Chappell challenged the constitutionality of the municipal charges against him as “preempted” by federal law, which the U.S. Supreme Court deems “the Supreme Law of the Land.”  That challenge resulted in a dismissal of many of the charges against Chappell, leaving to a jury only the question of whether he operated his drone in a “careless or reckless” manner.  The jury concluded he had not.


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