Lawsuit: Cops Can't Prohibit Personal Drone Use

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    A local photographer flew the drone over a deadly car crash earlier this month to record video He claims Hartford Police violated his civil rights when they supposedly told him to take his drone down and leave the scene

    A Hartford man is filing a lawsuit against the Hartford police department and two of its members, claiming they violated his civil rights when officers demanded that he stop flying a drone over a crime scene and detained him, according to court paperwork filed on Tuesday.

    The plaintiff in the case, Pedro Rivera, of Hartford, is filing a suit against Lt. Brian Foley, the commander of the major crimes division of the Hartford police department, Sgt. Edward Yergeau and the police department, according to the complaint.

    It alleges that Rivera’s Fourth Amendment and First Amendment rights were violated.

    The incident at the center of the case happened on Feb. 1, when Rivera responded to a fatal crash in Hartford that he heard on a police scanner.

    Rivera’s attorney maintains that he was standing in a public place outside of the crime scene as he operated his drone at 150 feet.

    Rivera works as a photographer and editor at WFSB, but was not acting as an employee of the television station at the time, according to that complaint.

    While Rivera made that clear to police officers at the scene, he acknowledged that he does, from time to time, forward the video feed from his drone to WFSB.

    Last week, WFSB release a statement.

    “WFSB does not own or utilize any drone devices. The person identified in the police report is a temporary, on-call employee of WFSB. However, he was not working for the station on the day
    of the incident. He was not assigned to shoot video of the crime scene by WFSB and has never been compensated for any drone video,” Klarn DePalma, vice president and general manager of WFSB, said in a statement released on Feb. 7.

    Rivera’s complaint says Yergeau and other uniformed members of the Hartford Police Department surrounded him, demanded his identification card and asked him what he was doing.

    Rivera did not feel that he was “free to leave during the course of this questioning,” according to his attorney. 

    Yergeau and other uniformed members of the police department demanded that Rivera stop operating the drone over the crash scene and that he leave the area, according to the complaint.

    The court complaint argues that Rivera did not violate any state or federal law and that he was not operating a “civil aircraft.”

    The complaint states that private citizens do not need local, state or federal approval to operate a remote-controlled model aircraft and that police impeded Rivera’s First Amendment rights in monitoring the police response to a motor vehicle crash.

    The complaint also states that Foley contacted Rivera’s employer, spoke to a supervisor, complained that Rivera interfered with the police department’s investigation and compromised the crime scene’s “integrity” and requested that the station discipline Rivera, the complaints says.

    It goes on to say that Rivera was suspended form work for at least a week because Lt. Foley contacted his employer, causing the loss of a week of wages, emotion distress and the loss of his constitutional right.

    DePalma released another statement on Tuesday:

    "We never suspended Mr. Rivera.  He is not a full-time employee but rather someone we use from time to time to fill in when we need photographers," DePalma said in the statement.

    Hartford police had no comment on the suit.

    Rivera is looking for compensatory damages, punitive damages as well as declaratory relief that operation of a drone in this manner does not violate any federal, local or state law or regulation.

    He is also asking that the Hartford Police Department not interfere with the lawful operation of drones.

    The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered an investigation into the use of the drone.

    Lt. Foley previously said there were concerns about the officers' safety and the victim's privacy.

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