The Kentucky man who was cited for criminal mischief and wanton endangerment after having shot down a drone over his property has now been cleared of all charges.
On Monday, a judge presiding over a Bullitt County District Court hearing dismissed all charges against William Merideth without prejudice, which means the Bullitt County prosecutor could refile the charges before a grand jury. John Wooldridge, the County Attorney, did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
According to local television station WDRB, Judge Rebecca Ward found that because three witnesses said that they saw the drone “below the tree line,” the drone flight was a violation of privacy. “
“He had a right to shoot at this drone, and I’m going to dismiss this charge,” Judge Ward said.
The drone’s pilot, David Boggs, meanwhile, previously gave Ars footage showing that the drone was well over 200 feet in the air before it was shot down.
But according to Boggs, the judge didn’t bother to look at all the evidence, preferring to rely solely on three witnesses who testified in support of Merideth.
“What happened in court was unbelievable—I don’t know how to describe how I feel about it,” Boggs told Ars. “Before [the hearing] was 20 minutes old, she dismissed the wanton endangerment charge. She said, ‘I don’t think anybody’s life was in danger, and I’m going to dismiss that.'”
Boggs was then asked by the defense to leave the courtroom, which he did.
“When I came back in and she was going to make her ruling, she didn’t look at the video, she didn’t look at the telemetry data, and there were no witnesses called on behalf of the state,” he added. “She didn’t care what the video said. She believed what the neighbor said and that the drone was below the tree line. The judge didn’t look at the video, paid no consideration to the video. I’m just shocked, beyond shocked. The police officers were shocked. So in essence what she’s saying is that if a news helicopter flies over your house, you can shoot it down, too. There was no regard to the truth whatsoever. None.”
The precise height of the drone may determine whether Merideth was justified in opening fire on the Phantom 3. The best case law on the issue dates back to 1946, long before drones were even technically feasible.
That year, the Supreme Court decided in a case known as United States v. Causby that a farmer in North Carolina could assert property rights up to 83 feet in the air. In that case, American military aircraft were flying above his farm, disturbing his sleep and his chickens. As such, the court found he was owed compensation.
However, the same decision also specifically mentioned a “minimum safe altitude of flight” at 500 feet—leaving the zone between 83 and 500 feet as a legal gray area.
For his part, Merideth felt vindicated by the ruling and said that he’ll be glad to put the entire affair behind him.
“I don’t feel great about it,” he said. “I’m glad the charges were dismissed. But I wish this had never happened.”
Merideth, who runs a local trucking company, said that his neighbors testified that the drone had made previous flights over the property, which he did not see.
“That video he shows, that thing looks a mile high, but considering that no one else besides him had the drone and footage in their possession for four days—we don’t know which drone that video was made from,” Merideth told Ars. “That doesn’t show the drone made two or three other passes.”
The defendant also noted that beyond the attention, he had to pay a small price: spending a night in jail after he was arrested.
“On the other hand, this guy [Boggs] is out his money for the drone and everything,” he told Ars. “He even admitted that that was his first day flying it. He didn’t know any of the rules. He’s not going to let it go, I don’t think. He can appeal it to the grand jury, but how far that will get him I’m not sure.”
Merideth’s supporters, meanwhile, are still selling “#droneslayer” t-shirts on eBay.
The accused shooter said that he has reminded everyone not to be “insulting to the guy. If you have an opinion, keep it civil.”
Boggs said he now feels compelled to bring a civil suit against Merideth.
“My original thing was for him to just replace the drone, but it’s much bigger than that now—he lies and then doubles down on his lies,” he said.
When asked why he didn’t file a lawsuit earlier, Boggs told Ars that the prosecution had told him that part of the criminal penalty sought would be restitution to cover the cost of the drone.
“I’m not inclined to wait for that any longer—I will probably meet with my attorney this week and we will start that process,” Boggs added.
Since this July 2015 incident, a Republican state representative has filed a state bill that imposes “penalties for those who use drones to harass or invade others’ privacy.”