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To combat smuggling, Virginia Beach lawmaker wants to ban drones near jails and prisons

A commercial drone flies over grass. (Free Use)
December 28, 2019

Saying he wants to fix a void in the law, a Virginia delegate who spends a lot of time in the air wants to stop drones — some of which carry drugs or other contraband — from flying near jails and prisons.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, is a helicopter pilot who flies several times a week and said he is concerned about drones.

The Virginian-Pilot reported in October that 33 drones have been sighted near state prisons since January 2018, and there’s nothing in the state code to stop them from flying over prisons or jails.

One expert said most of the time, drones flying over such facilities are carrying suspected drugs and contraband that are dropped in the prison courtyards. In late August, prison security found a drone carrying $500 worth of marijuana, an eight ball of cocaine, a cell phone, three SIM cards and handcuff key near Buckingham Correctional Center.

Knight said Wednesday The Pilot’s reporting led him to file a bill for the upcoming General Assembly session to make it a Class 1 misdemeanor — which comes with up to a 12-month jail sentence or up a $2,500 fine — to “knowingly and intentionally” fly a drone within 400 feet of a local or state correctional facility.

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“I’m just trying to fix what you brought to my attention,” he told a Pilot reporter.

The restriction wouldn’t apply if the drone operator got permission from an official in the jail or prison, or to drone pilots who register with the Federal Aviation Administration and follow federal regulations.

Earlier this year, Knight got a law passed that makes it a misdemeanor to violate any FAA flight restrictions when taking off or landing a drone.

Tom McMahon, who works with the Arlington-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in an email drone operators are encouraged by the FAA not to fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or facilities like prisons.

The FAA — which restricts airspace in areas such as federal prisons, airports and military bases — also says you can’t fly a drone over groups of people without their knowledge.

And it’s already illegal in Virginia to deliver contraband to inmates by any method.

Knight said he would consider working on his bill with drone companies who can program the devices to stop when they reach the coordinates for the jail or prison.

He said the bill, which he filed Monday, could still be modified.

“I absolutely just want to fix a problem, I don’t care how,” he said.

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© 2019 The Virginian-Pilot