SAN JOSE — Anyone who flies a drone above a wildfire zone or jail facility in Santa Clara County can now be charged with a misdemeanor under a new ordinance aimed at stopping drones from interfering with firefighting efforts and dropping contraband on jail grounds, officials announced Thursday.
The announcement comes after Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday signed SB 1355, a statewide law authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, that outlaws flying a drone above California prisons, jails, juvenile halls, camps and ranches.
The county ordinance is aimed at complementing and bolstering the new law, which deals with violations as infractions subject to a $500 fine, by adding the possibility of criminal prosecution.
“It’s common sense. Public safety is first and paramount,” county Supervisor Mike Wasserman said at a news conference Thursday, adding that “there is no place for a drone to be in the way” of firefighting operations.
In two separate incidents last year, drones frustrated firefighters battling wildland blazes. Air operations were temporarily grounded in October during the Bear Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and three months earlier in Saratoga, authorities confiscated a drone flying over the Eden Fire.
Wasserman and Supervisor Cindy Chavez first pushed for the drone ordinance last November after the Bear Fire episode and the discovery of a drone carrying meth that crashed on the grounds of the Elmwood jail complex last October.
“We started to see our own risks and incursions,” Chavez said. “It becomes of particular importance as it relates to jails and this explosion of wildfires in our area.”
As of 2016, 4,587 drones had been registered in the county.
That confiscated drone from the Eden Fire was on display at the Thursday news conference outside the county headquarters, with county Assistant Fire Chief John Justice holding it up as he detailed how it interfered with firefighting at the time.
“There was a drone that came into one of the flanks,” Justice said. “We immediately ordered our aircraft to abort.”
Justice also repeated a now-common firefighting mantra about drones — “If you fly, we can’t” — and redirected his attention to the culprit drone in the Eden Fire.
“This drone right here, if it impacts a helicopter or airplane, it can have catastrophic consequences,” he said.
Jim Crawford, county division chief for the statewide Cal Fire, added that while drones might be slight in stature compared to aircraft, even the slightest shift in aerodynamics in a helicopter rotor or airplane wing or fuselage from a drone strike forces the automatic grounding and inspection of an aircraft.
“It’s a risk we’re not willing to take,” Crawford said.
Sheriff Laurie Smith estimated that staff at the jail facilities she oversees have discovered between five and 10 drones, primarily at Elmwood, which has an open-air design.
More dramatic instances have popped up across the country: In 2015, someone smuggled two cell phones into a federal prison in Victorville, the same year that a prison-yard riot erupted at a state prison in Mansfield, Ohio after a drone dropped a package containing tobacco, marijuana and heroin.
In August 2017 at a state prison in Ionia, Michigan — between Grand Rapids and the capital city of Lansing — three people were arrested after allegedly using a drone to drop drugs and a cell phone in a prison yard. It was later revealed that a drone already made two undetected contraband drops at site months earlier.
To Smith, the ordinance would ideally be a deterrent from something even worse being introduced into the county jails.
“Contraband is one thing, but we’re more fearful of weapons being dropped,” she said. “We now have the ability to take action against people.”
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