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Lompoc Residents Tell City Council About Battle for Privacy with Neighbor’s Drone

Dave Marston and his neighbors are in a battle with an unwelcome “Peeping Tom” drone and Tuesday night they took their fight for privacy to City Hall.

Armed with photographs and legal research, Marston asked Lompoc City Council members to enforce state laws against “the growing nuisance and threat to our privacy” from drones equipped with high-definition cameras.

“We have an individual … that flies a drone over an area spanning a one- to two-block radius around our neighborhood,” Marston said.

Marston said the DJI Phantom drone is equipped with an ultra high-definition camera that allows the operator “to see what the camera sees in real time and possibly record it.”

“On several occasions we’ve seen this guy’s drone through the window shade opening over the the street while we’re sitting in our living room watching TV. If we can see him, then he can most certainly see us, and you too,” Marston said.

“Although I speak from experience, this issue will affect the privacy of all residents in the future and it’s already affecting many in our neighborhood.”

Marston said other neighbors have reported “witnessing this drone observing their activities in their backyards.”

One neighbor, Gale Dodds, said the drone has become a real problem for the area.

“We were all at a birthday party and this drone was flying and staying stationery and watching the kids, all kinds of kids. It’s really scary,” Dodds said.

Marston said he located the drone operator — a neighbor a block away — and asked him to stop flying over people’s homes.

According to Marston, the drone operator became angry and confrontational, and “said I didn’t own the airspace and that he would continue to fly anytime and anywhere he pleased.”

Marston reported the encounter and the invasive drone to Lompoc Police Department on three occasions, but could only convince officers to file a report.

“Since this technology is so new, they just don’t know how to respond,” Marston said.

That’s when Marston decided to investigate what the law says about drones and privacy and discovered the law was on his side.

Last year,  the California Legislature passed a law — Assembly Bill 856 — extending the definition of physical invasion of privacy to include “the airspace above the land of another person without permission" with restrictions geared toward paparazzi. However, Gov. Jerry Brown in September vetoed Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson's Senate Bill 142, which had sought to regulate unmanned aerial vehicles by prohibiting drones from trespassing on private property without the owner’s permission.

Marston also discovered a section of the state penal code — known as the “Peeping Tom” law — that makes it a crime to peer, via cameras, binoculars, periscopes, and recording devices, “into the interior of an area in which the occupant has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

“A drone is the new periscope,” Marston said.

The Federal Aviation Administration also has regulations governing the use of drones, requiring drone operators to register drones over 0.55 pounds and avoiding areas near airports.

All of Lompoc is within five miles of the Lompoc Airport, Marston said, and no drones have been registered according to a city official.

“These civil and penal codes are enough to protect our citizens from creeps that want to trespass and invade our privacy using this technology and they should be prosecuted like the criminals they are,” Marston said.

“We want to take the lead and act right now before the proliferation of drone technology gets out of hand, and invades our privacy and all of our backyards.”

Marston also suggested the city prohibit registered sex offenders from operating drones because the technology could be exploited to allow an offender to observe children without being physically present in excluded zones around children or schools.

Marston’s research paid off Tuesday when Mayor Bob Lingl won approval from the council to direct the city attorney and staff to address the use of drones in city codes.

Police Chief Pat Walsh said he would be excited to work with Marston and the city attorney on a new city ordinance and law enforcement procedures for drones.

“This is not the first time I’ve heard of this,” Walsh said.

“Somebody has about a 5-foot diameter drone that followed somebody out of town at 3 o’clock in the morning, which I think is kind of weird. I think he’s onto something.”

Noozhawk contributing writer Carol Benham is a longtime local journalist who lives in Lompoc. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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