"If a landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere. Otherwise buildings could not be erected, trees could not be planted, and fences could not be run." - Justice William O. Douglas in the majority opinion of the United States vs. Causby
Thomas Lee Causby would not be a friend of Amazon or anyone else trying to release drones onto an unsuspecting and naive world.
Causby was a Greensboro, North Carolina chicken farmer who successfully sued the United States in 1946 for "violating" his air space.
Military aircraft were using a nearby airport and were flying as low as 83 feet above his property where he had a chicken farm. The noise would startle chickens causing them to panic and kill themselves by slamming against the walls of chicken houses. The problem because so severe it forced him out of business.
Causby sued contending it was an unconstitutional taking of property.
The United States argued the old doctrine of "ad colelum"- Latin for "whosever's is the soil, it is theirs all the way to Heaven and all the way to Hell" - didn't apply in the modern world with the advent of flight.
The court agreed - to a degree. Justice Douglas and the majority put reasonable limits on private air space basically setting a precedent for 83 feet by ruling landowners "have exclusive control of the immediate reaches" above their land.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations restrict aircraft to 500 feet and up in rural areas and 1,000 feet in urban areas while recommending that private drones remain below 400 feet.
There's only one problem. The users of private drones repeatedly ignore the rules.
It is expected to get worse when the FAA comes out next year with rules for commercial drones.
When that happens, Pandora's Box will be completely open.
It will set standards on end for trespassing, invasion of privacy as well as noise and nuisance laws. That's because the FAA has signaled they won't address such issues and will leave that to local authorities such as police departments. At the same time they want drones treated the same as aircraft.
Some cities already slammed with irritating drones operated by irresponsible or clueless people are taking steps to supersede any possible FAA rule. Elected officials in Northampton, Mass., have passed a resolution declaring local property owners control the air space 500 feet above their land effectively challenging the FAA's authority.
New York City is considering an outright ban of all drones. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge Authority is seeking legislation banning all drones in and around the bridge after one crashed on the bridge deck.
The reason for the New York and San Francisco efforts are driven by public safety and terrorism concerns. There have been incidents of drones hitting tall buildings in major cities and then falling to the ground narrowly missing pedestrians.
As for terrorism and other crimes, any technology law-abiding citizens have including those who are irresponsible can also be accessed by terrorists and criminals.
It's not too big of a leap to expect burglars to case houses using low flying drones or even pedophiles and other sexual perverts to use them to spy on people. Stalkers could also use them.
The legal precedent of 83 feet established by the Supreme Court in 1946 for private "ownership" of air space above private property seems reasonable.
The FAA should have no authority to allow or control the operation of drones over private property up to the 83-foot ceiling. If you have a drone you should be free to do with it as you please under the 83-foot cap as long as it is over your property. As far as air space over public roads, sidewalks and such the FAA should have control from the ground up.
That said agencies and jurisdictions should still have the right to ban and/or regulate the use of drones whether it is over a national park, a stadium, freeways, schools, streets, or city parks.
This is not something where for-profit Silicon Valley millionaires should be allowed to act like charging bulls in a china store rewriting privacy and other laws simply because they are developing innovative ways to do things. At the end of the day, Amazon is still a business that is out to make a profit - although its stockholders are starting to wonder.
You can bet your last bitcoin that Jeff Bezos wouldn't want drones that aren't his buzzing his home 24/7, following his movements or shattering the peace and quiet he may seek in his yard as drones deliver pizza and other goods to neighbors.
Yet the Jeff Bezos of the world want society to write them a blank check so they can deploy drones as they see fit to line their own pocket.
Drones per se aren't the problem. It's how commercial enterprises such as Amazon and private individuals that seek to operate them that's the issue.
Common sense should prevail but so far self-absorption seems to rule the day for many drone operators.
There need to be rules in place to respect the rights of property owners and individuals who will be subject to drone abuse.
If not, it won't be too long before the chickens come home to roost.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.