Journalist sues police who investigated his use of a drone

The Hartford Courant | Vice | Professional Society of Drone Journalists

A photographer for WFSB-TV in Hartford, Conn., filed a suit against the Hartford Police Department in U.S. District Court Tuesday, claiming a police officer demanded his employer discipline him after he flew a drone over an accident scene.

In his suit (which you can read below), Pedro Rivera says he was off work on Feb. 1 when he heard about an accident. Once he got to the scene, he flew a drone over it to “record visual images,” the suit says. Police “surrounded the plaintiff, demanded his identification card, and asked him questions about what he was doing,” the suit says. “The plaintiff did not feel as though he were free to leave during the course of this questioning.”

A police sergeant who wrote a report of the incident “expressed concern that flying a drone over the scene might compromise the integrity of the scene and the ‘privacy of the victim’s body,’” Hilda Muñoz reported in The Hartford Courant on Feb. 7. The FAA told Muñoz it was looking into the incident.

Rivera’s suit says police spokesperson Brian Foley called WFSB and “requested that discipline be imposed upon the plaintiff by his employer, or suggested that the employer could maintain its goodwill with the employer by disciplining the plaintiff.” WFSB GM Klarn DePalma told Muñoz that Rivera is a “temporary, on-call employee of WFSB.”

The station suspended Rivera, Jason Koebler reports in Vice. Koebler reported Monday that Rivera intended to sue the police.

Rivera told Matthew Schroyer of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists “journalists on the ground obtained more intrusive images than his drone was capable of taking“:

“If privacy is a concern, it was not with me,” Rivera wrote. “It was with all the local news stations that were on the sidewalks with ‘long lenses’ and had shots so tight, that you could see inside the crash vehicle.”

Rivera’s lawsuit says he “suffered ascertainable economic loss in the form of a lost week of wages, emotion distress and the loss of his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures to freedom of speech.” He’s seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an injunction “forbidding the City of Hartford’s Police Department from interfering with the lawful operation of drones within city limits.”

Here’s Rivera’s suit, courtesy his attorney, Norm Pattis:

Pedro Rivera's lawsuit against Hartford, Conn., Police

Related: Journalists await new drone regulations. And wait, and wait… | FAA on drone recordings by journalists: ‘There is no gray area’ | Photographer says Spokesman-Review’s drone-shot video occurred in a ‘gray area’

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  • kandy830

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  • Cameron Scott

    two things: commercial use of drones is illegal, according to the FAA. but the FAA is investigating not privacy but the safety or not of using the drone in the city.

  • Brendan Keefe

    Just to be clear, Rivera was NOT on duty and this was not station equipment, so this isn’t quite the test case we’ve been waiting for. Rivera was a private citizen flying an R/C helicopter under the guidelines outlined by the FAA since 1981 (and recently reaffirmed). The First Amendment protects photography of government activity above all (such as the activities of police). However, the FAA insists that journalists are included in its stated ‘ban’ on ‘commercial’ UAS flights. How can a citizen fly a camera, but members of the press can not? There needs to be a test case to lift this clear violation of the First Amendment that shackles the news media from photographing the government — particularly when we are kept blocks away from even non-crime scenes (such as fires) while residents are allowed inside the tape without restriction.