After requests from LA Public Press asking why the Los Angeles Police Department arrested drone pilots flying in downtown LA, the department says they will no longer enforce the city’s drone law.

Since February, the LAPD has arrested, cited, and confiscated the drones of nine drone pilots flying near the abandoned graffitied towers in downtown Los Angeles. 

The arrests flew under the radar until LAPD’s Assistant Commander Lillian Carranza, proudly shared the news on social media. In two (one has since been deleted) tweets, Lillian cited municipal code 56.31, as a reason for the arrests — adding that all of downtown LA is within a 5-mile radius of an FAA-licensed facility and is, therefore, a no-drone zone. 

But the FAA and legal experts say the department is wrong in its enforcement and interpretation of the law. 

LA Public Press asked the department multiple times which airports were within 5 miles of downtown Los Angeles or which control towers the public needs approval from, but the department did not answer. 

In an initial statement to LA Public Press, the LAPD said they would continue to enforce the law against drone usage in the city. They also said they have no concerns about the legality of the city’s law. 

After asking follow-up questions in response to the FAA’s and lawyer’s statements, the LAPD backtracked and shared a notice sent to LAPD personnel telling them to cease enforcing the city’s ordinance until it was updated to comply with federal law. They also said the law is now under review by the City Attorney and that federal regulations still govern the use of drones. 

In a statement about LAPD’s arrests of drone pilots, the FAA said local laws can only restrict where drones can take off or land and, “cannot prohibit a drone from flying in airspace permitted by the FAA.” The city cannot ban flying drones in certain parts of Los Angeles where the FAA allows it, including blanket restrictions over certain parts of the city that are uncontrolled airspace. 

The city’s law technically restricts anyone from flying a drone within 5 miles of an airport without first getting permission from an air traffic control tower. However, according to the FAA’s map, there are no airports with controlled airspace that are within a 5-mile radius of downtown LA. There are helipads throughout downtown, but many of downtown LA’s heliports are unmanned, with no air traffic tower to get permission from before flying. 

Additionally, the FAA in a statement to LA Public Press said drone users do not need permission from air traffic control if flying within 5 miles of an airport with controlled airspace. Instead, drone users need to go through the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) to apply for clearance

Drone pilots flying below 400ft in uncontrolled airspace, including all of downtown LA, do not need authorization. In other words, LAPD is wrong. 

The LAANC is an FAA system that automates the flight approval process for drone pilots. The process is easy and can be done on one of the 11 FAA-approved apps or online. With a click of a button, you are cleared to fly in controlled airspace in the eyes of the FAA. 

So who can regulate drones?

In follow-up tweets, the LAPD’s Central Division made allegations about why they arrested the users beyond not having permission. The department said the pilot didn’t have an FA107 license, but those are only required if you are flying for commercial work. The department also claimed that flying over buildings and having six drones in the air violated the city’s law. No matter the reason, only one agency can regulate how drone pilots use airspace: the FAA. 

The FAA cleared the air on local drone laws and federal preemption in a fact sheet released last year. In it, the agency says they are the only authority that can regulate aviation safety and the use of air space by aircraft, including drones. The agency stated, that any “[a]ttempts by state and local governments to regulate in those fields are preempted,” nullifying local drone laws.

Jonathan Rupprech, a drone lawyer and commercial pilot, said that the city’s law is out-of-date and unlawful. He reiterated that only the federal government can make laws about airspace. Specifically, he says, the city’s law violates federal code 49 USC 40103 which says the Federal government has “exclusive sovereignty of airspace in the United States.” Simply, the city of Los Angeles trying to regulate where and how drones, or any aircraft, fly is not within their authority. The discrepancies between where to get permission to fly conflict with each other, for example, would frustrate the FAA’s ability to integrate drones into the airspace. When there is conflict between the two laws, the FAA’s law preempts the city’s, making the city’s law illegal. 

The FAA allows cities and states to pass a limited set of laws that restrict drone usage. They can pass limited laws that relate to privacy, emergency medical services, prison contraband, and harassment. The FAA, for now, won’t preempt those laws. California already has several narrowly focused drone laws on the books. 

But outside enforcing those limited laws, the FAA says the police department’s authority is curtailed. In a handout available to police, the federal government outlines the limits to the police’s authority in enforcing drone laws. Police are limited to referring violations to the FAA for investigation and prosecution. 

In 2016, filmmaker and aerospace engineer Arvel Chappell III was arrested, cited, and drone confiscated for violating the city’s drone law. It was the first time the law was enforced by Los Angeles since its passage in 2015. His lawyer challenged the constitutionality of the case in court, saying only the federal government can regulate airspace because of federal preemption. In response, the city dismissed all but one charge. The city claimed he flew in a “careless or reckless manner” near an LAPD helicopter. After hearing the case the jury found him “not guilty” and the city lost the case.

If you are looking to fly a drone in Los Angeles, the FAA has resources available to you that are more accurate than the LAPD’s guidance. The FAA’s website outlines what you need to do to comply with the law before and during your flights, including registering your aircraft. Before you fly, check with the FAA-approved apps available for download or online to find flight restrictions and to file a LAANC.