Demystifying Drone Usage and Surveillance Laws in Virginia

Drones have become increasingly popular for various purposes, ranging from aerial photography to delivery services. However, their widespread use has also raised concerns regarding privacy and security. In Virginia, there are specific laws in place to regulate drone usage and prevent unauthorized surveillance. It is important to note that these provisions were updated in 2023 to reflect the evolving landscape of technology. This article will explore some relevant excerpts from the Code of Virginia to gain a better understanding of the laws governing drone usage and surveillance in the state. Owners and enthusiasts should keep up to date with legal developments to avoid falling afoul of new rules, which could have serious legal consequences.

Peeping or Spying by Electronic Device or Drone

In 2017, section 18.2-130.1 was added to the Code of Virginia. This prohibited the use of an electronic device to secretly look into someone else's home through a window, door, or other openings. This applies to any type of building or structure used as a dwelling, whether it's permanent or movable, and regardless of whether the occupancy is permanent or temporary. It is worth noting that this law also applies to situations where the offender owns the property and leases or rents it to another person.

This section was updated in 2023 to specifically include the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), such as drones. While drone pilots may believe they are not causing harm while flying drones, capturing any images or recordings of the inside of another person’s home could leave them criminally liable. In fact it is also a crime to follow, make contact with, or take any identifiable images of somebody using a drone without their consent. This offence is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by 1 year confinement, and a fine of up to $2,500.

The legislation aims to safeguard an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy within their home or occupied building. This section does not apply to lawful criminal investigations. This exception ensures that law enforcement agencies can use electronic devices or drones during authorized investigations while still respecting privacy rights.

Trespass with a Drone

Under Virginia law (§ 18.2-121.3), it is a criminal offense to intentionally fly a drone onto someone else's property within 50 feet of a dwelling, if the purpose is to coerce, intimidate, or harass someone. It's also considered illegal if the person has already been explicitly warned to stop flying the drone on somebody else’s property, regardless of the reason. This section was updated in 2023 to prohibit flying a drone in violation of Federal Aviation Administration instructions or airspace restrictions. Lastly, using a drone to drop items or capture images of identifiable inmates or residents at correctional facilities was also made a criminal offense. These trespass offenses are Class 1 misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Virginia has implemented stringent laws to ensure that drone usage respects privacy and security rights. The state prohibits the use of drones for spying or peeping into dwellings or occupied buildings without just cause. Furthermore, trespassing with drones is considered a misdemeanor offense, with specific actions identified as violations. By understanding these laws, both drone operators and individuals can navigate drone usage while safeguarding privacy and adhering to regulatory requirements.


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