Stiffer fines, more jail time soon likely for illegally flying remote controlled aircraft over ‘critical infrastructure’

A measure that will significantly increase the penalty for flying drones in off-limits airspace has passed both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Senate Bill 306 cleared the House of Representatives last week on a 95-1 vote. It passed the Senate 30-0 on Feb. 25. The bill now awaits a signature from Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

The legislation is sponsored by a pair of East Tennessee Republicans — Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol and Rep. Bud Hulsey of Kingsport.

Hulsey said SB306 “enhances the penalty for flying a drone over critical infrastructure from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class E felony.”

A Class C misdemeanor carries a possible 30-day sentence and a $50 fine. Conviction of a Class E felony may result in a 1-6 year prison sentence and up to a $3,0000 fine.

Under current Tennessee law, a person who “knowingly uses an unmanned aircraft within 250 feet of the perimeter of any critical infrastructure facility for the purpose of conducting surveillance of, gathering evidence or collecting information about, or photographically or electronically recording critical infrastructure data” is guilty of a Class C misdemeanor, a legislative background analysis of the proposed measure reported.

According to Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts, no one has ever actually been convicted of flying a drone in restricted airspace under the state’s existing law.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Mike Bell remarked during a February committee hearing that, because the Class C misdemeanor penalty is relatively insubstantial, it has “not been worth it to the sheriffs or the DAs to prosecute.”

Sen. Lundberg said he decided to propose a punishment increase after hearing complaints about unauthorized drones “from a number of industries across the state.”

“The reason for the change is, candididly, there is a proliferation obviously of drones.” Lundberg told the Judiciary Committee.

“With that proliferation, we need more of an impediment for folks who are flying these over critical infrastructure,” he said. “A Class C misdemeanor does not provide that.”