Prairie Village council hung up on questions about enforcement of proposed drone regulations in city

Drones with cameras pose a threat to privacy, argued Prairie Village Mayor Eric Mikkelson. Photo credit Terry Kimura. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Questions about enforcement by the Prairie Village city council on Monday stymied significant progress on the advancement of a new ordinance to regulate unmanned aerial drones.

The council had directed city staff back in January to fine tune draft ordinance language that would prohibit recreational use of drones in situations that could be seen as an invasion of privacy for residents. But upon review of the updated language this week, a number of members of the council raised concerns that putting a new law regarding drones on the books could make people liable for unintended actions and could pose enforcement headaches for police and prosecutors.

Still, a number of members of the governing body and one resident expressed concerns about the threat that drones equipped with cameras could pose to privacy.

Prairie Village resident Kate Faerber told the council of an experience that had made her leery of the use of drones in the city. She said her husband had been out in the yard talking to a neighbor when they heard a buzzing. They turned to find a drone hovering just a few feet above them. As soon as they looked at the drone, it flew away. They had no indication of who was manning the drone or where video it might have been shooting was being transmitted.

“We have a neighbor up the street who just put in a swimming pool, and he’s got four daughters. I’m just wondering how he’s going to feel about somebody flying a drone over, taking a look at his young daughters,” Faerber told the council. “I wouldn’t feel good about that.”

Mayor Eric Mikkelson, who spoke strongly in support of the idea of a new ordinance earlier this year, reupped his argument that the city should be looking for a way to stop drone operators from conduct that would make people feel uncomfortable on their own properties, like hovering near a window and shooting video.

He pushed back on the idea raised by other members of the governing body that some of the behavior a new ordinance would seek to prohibit could be covered under trespassing and stalking laws already on the books, or that state and federal law might end up covering the kinds of questionable use at issue. Mikkelson said he thought it was important that the city have the discretion to pursue action against perpetrators at the municipal level.

“I trust our officers to make those judgment calls. I trust our prosecutors to make those judgment calls,” he said. “But when there’s an egregious example that falls into this gaping loophole that I think is there, I think we want the ability to prosecute in our local courts.”

He also said that questions about enforcement — it would be especially difficult to identify the operator of a drone that flew away after hovering outside someone’s window, for example — shouldn’t deter the city from adopting an ordinance.

“Enforcement is a challenge in any crime. The perpetrator always tries to get away,” the mayor said. “Whatever the crime is, by the time the police get there, the perpetrator is usually gone and there’s an enforcement problem. That’s no different in this case than any of the others.”

The council voted 7-5 to send the draft ordinance language back to staff for additional revisions. It will be brought back to the governing body for additional conversation at a later date.

At present, Mission Hills is the only city in the northeast Johnson County area to have adopted its own ordinance on drone use.

Use of drones in Prairie Village became an issue in the 2018 mayoral race after councilwoman Serena Schermoly’s campaign flew a drone above Mikkelson’s house to get footage for use in a video about house design guidelines.