Photo by Flying Eye [Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
A type of drone. Photo by Flying Eye [Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
Two people who allegedly flew drones near heliports in downtown Los Angeles and around Griffith Park were hit with misdemeanor charges, making them the first to be charged under new city restrictions banning the aerial devices within five miles of an airport, the City Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday.

City prosecutors allege that on Dec. 9, 20-year-old Michael Ponce flew a drone more than 400 feet above Griffith Park and within three miles of hospital heliports. Meanwhile, Arvel Chappell, 35, is accused of flying a drone Dec. 12 within a mile of the LAPD Air Support Division’s Hooper Heliport at the city’s Piper Tech building in downtown Los Angeles, also more than 400 feet from the ground.

According to prosecutors, an aircraft had to change course to avoid hitting the drone operated by Chappell.

In both instances, the drones were seized.

Ponce and Chappell each could face up to six months jail time and a $1,000 fine if convicted, prosecutors said. Their arraignments are set for Feb. 22, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

Ponce and Chappell are the first to be charged under restrictions adopted by the city in October that makes it a misdemeanor to fly drones within five miles of an airport without authorization, or to fly them more than 400 feet above the ground.

“Operating a drone near trafficked airspace places pilots and the public at serious risk,” City Attorney Mike Feuer said. “We’ll continue to use our new city law to hold drone operators accountable and keep our residents safe.”

Councilman Mitch Englander, who sponsored the restrictions, said some might view drone flying as “victimless,” but there could be “devastating” consequences.

“We saw firsthand what happened during a major brush fire where drones grounded firefighting helicopters,” he said. “A single drone can take down a helicopter or an airplane. If drones fly, first responders can’t.”

The city’s ordinance makes it unlawful to fly drones within a five-mile radius of an airport, limits drone use if it interferes with manned aircraft and requires that drones be flown within the operator’s line of sight.

The rules also prohibit using drones at night and flying them higher than 400 feet. Drones also cannot be flown within 25 feet of another person, except at take-off and landing.

—City News Service

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