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A Journalist Almost Lost His Job For Droning a Deadly Car Crash

FAA is investigating the incident, photographer says attention is 'absolutely ridiculous'
Image: Pedro Rivera

A photographer for a local television station was suspended from his job for a week after using his drone to videotape a fatal car accident in Hartford, Connecticut last week.

Pedro Rivera says that, as a hobby, he’s flown his drone over several news events over the last several weeks, but wasn’t bothered by police until last week, when three Hartford police approached him at the scene of the accident.

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The flight got national attention when the Federal Aviation Administration announced today that they’d be investigating the case.

“I’ve been to like five scenes but have never had a problem,” Rivera said. “Their first question was, ‘Do you work for the media?’ I told them I own the drone and was here on my own time.”

Rivera wasn’t charged and wasn’t taken into the station for questioning.

The police later called WFSB, the station where Rivera works. When he showed up for work Monday, he was suspended for the week. He was reinstated Friday and told not to carry station identification while flying. Rivera said that during a meeting with his boss today, the police assumed he was filming for the station.

“They said I was there to film for Channel 3, but that was the first thing I said, that I’m here on my own,” he said.

Operating as a hobbyist, Rivera is allowed to film accident and crime scenes as long as he does not interfere with the police investigation. The FAA has said that flying a drone for commercial purposes, including journalism, is illegal, though an increasing number of drone operators are challenging that assertion. The FAA has never formally instituted commercial drone regulations.

“From a legal perspective, he did nothing wrong under federal law nor under state law,” Peter Sachs, a Connecticut-based attorney and private investigator said. “He wasn’t interfering with the police and there’s a First Amendment right to videotape police on duty. There’s no basis for criminal charges.”

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Despite claiming he wasn’t doing it for work purposes, the video clearly could be something used on a news report, so it’s a good opportunity to look at it as a test-case for what might happen as journalists begin trying to use drones. In the early going, there will likely be several legal battles and there may be cases where cops force a drone pilot to stop flying even when they aren’t in the way. Critics of Rivera’s flight have said that, by filming at a fatal accident, he could violate the privacy rights of the dead.

“They talk about privacy issues,” he said. “Well, I got an aerial shot from a couple hundred feet. You can’t see anything except an overview.”

Representatives for the Hartford Police Department declined to comment. A representative for the FAA says they became aware of the flight last night and have yet to complete their investigation.

Rivera says WFSB has not used any of his footage and the station said it “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,” Klarn DePalma, vice president of the station, told the Professional Society of Drone Journalists. “He was not assigned to shoot video of the crime scene by WFSB and has never been compensated for any drone video.”

Rivera said for the time being, he doesn’t plan on flying near any accident or crime sites, but plans to keep flying his drone. He said he’s considering legal action against the Hartford Police for notifying his employer without filing any charges.

“The problem, I think, is simple. The police don’t want to be watched, period,” he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. I wasn’t charged, I didn’t violate anything. They went after my job.”