OVILLA — Ellis County and District Attorney Patrick Wilson shared his experience with drones during the regular session of the Ovilla City Council on Monday.
During the presentation, Wilson detailed laws governing drones and where they can legally operate.
“My experience began about two years ago with drones. I found a drone crashed in my backyard. The camera was still moving around. It was pretty alarming,” Wilson said. “My oldest son was six years old at the time. That is the first time that I explained to him the concept of privacy.”
Wilson stated that pilots could search online and see many stories about drones and the issues that they pose, which are not limited to Ovilla but are a global enigma.
The law used across the state to manage drones is the Texas Privacy Act, which was enacted in 2013 and amended in 2015 and again in 2017.
“The privacy act deals with images. It deals indirectly with drones but primarily with images,” Wilson said. “Well, what does that mean for drones? Drones are used for capturing images."
Wilson stated there are numerous reasons for legally using drones. Some of these legal uses include professional or scholarly research, U.S. military operations, documenting a scene of a felony or crime, by the consent of a person who owns the property and documenting the scene of a hazardous chemical spill.
Wilson stated that drones are not allowed to fly over jails, prisons and places that are considered critical infrastructure. Some of these places include water treatment facilities, ports, high hazardous dams and cell towers.
Wilson also noted there have been incidents where drones have been used to smuggle drugs into prisons.
Under the Texas Privacy Act, there are several different offenses a person could face if they illegally fly a drone.
A person can be charged with the illegal use of an unmanned aircraft to capture an image of an individual or privately owned property with the intent to conduct surveillance.
“You have to catch who is operating the drone, prove that they were doing so with the intent to conduct surveillance on you and if you can catch them it is only a class C misdemeanor, a ticket,” Wilson explained. “If you disclose, display or distribute or have some other use for the image it is only a class B misdemeanor. It is a jailable offense. If someone were to do surveillance on their neighbor and place it on Facebook that is a class B misdemeanor.”
Wilson stated that there civil options through the Texas Privacy Act that a person can pursue.
“If a property owner or tenant of privately owned real property can sue someone if they illegally capture an image of the property or the owner or tenant. They can recover $5,000 for all images captured from a single episode,” Wilson said. ”It is $10,000 for sharing or using images captured in a single episode. You can also recover actual damages if the images are shared with malice. That is if your reputation got damaged some how.”
He advised the audience at city hall not to shoot down drones because there are a number of criminal violations that a person could face if they take the law into their own hands. One such offense is deadly conduct.
Under the Texas penal code, deadly conduct is when a person commits an offense by recklessly engaging in conduct that places another in imminent danger of serious bodily injury. Or "if a person knowingly discharges a firearm in the direction of one or more individuals, a habitation, building, or vehicle and is reckless as to whether the habitation, building, or vehicle is occupied.”
Wilson said the Federal Aviation Administration has classified threating to shoot down a drone as a federal crime because they have classified a drone as a commercial aircraft.
People are still not allowed to fly a drone within five miles of a controlled airport without permission of the airport. Also, individuals who are considered a hobbyist are not required to register their drone, but people who engage in commercial use must obtain a permit for any commercial purposes. Some of these uses include roofers, realtors, wedding photographers, farmers and in construction applications.
Wilson told the council that the state legislature passed and the governor signed an amendment to the Texas Privacy Act that goes into effect Sept. 1.
“A political subdivision may not adopt or enforce any ordinance, order or other similar measures regarding the operation of an unmanned aircraft," Wilson read. "If they were not strong enough language they went on a couple of sentences later and said, ‘an ordinance, order or other similar measures that violate (this) is void and unenforceable.”
In other business the council:
• Heard an updated regarding the July 10 order of abatement concerning an outside storage nuisance located in the 100 block of Oakwood Lane. Code Enforcement and Animal Control Officer Mike Dooly told the council that the city has been working with the resident for the past four years to clean up the property. Due to continued noncompliance, the city is working to obtain a warrant to remove the items stored outside.
• Took no action to consider revisions to the minimum square feet for living areas in newly constructed residential homes.
• Approved to draft a revision to the water rates for the city. Through this revision, a rate increase of $0.13 per 1,000 gallons is proposed.
• Approved to make improvements to the culvert and ditch on Cockrell Hill Road and Main Street in front of city hall.
• Approved a resolution for a subscription agreement with GovPilot for $5,000 per year and authorized Mayor Richard Dormier to execute the agreement that starts Oct. 1.
• Took no action on the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property.