Testimony Begins in Drone Trial

Testimony from witnesses began yesterday afternoon in the “Drone Trial” of a Lincoln Parish man accused of criminal trespass for flying an unmanned aerial drone over neighbor’s property without permission. The bench trial is being held in Third Judicial District Court in Ruston.

Division C Judge Bruce Hampton first had to rule on three motions filed earlier in the day.

A motion by defense attorney Jordan Bird asking the court to allow expert testimony via skype was denied by Hampton. The ruling was likely damaging to defendant James Benson’s case, as case law for drones is a relatively new field.

Bird argued that the expert lived in Michigan, and they couldn’t afford the expense of flying the witness to Louisiana, and there are no similar experts in the local region. He added that the judge had discretion to allow the unconventional method of testimony, he thought, as the defendant was entitled to have an expert witness on his behalf.

Prosecutor Michelle Thompson countered that there was no statutory authority or court precedent that would allow that method of testimony. Hampton agreed.

Another motion, this one by Thompson, that new evidence of “crimes or other acts” be allowed at trial also went against the defendant.

In August, 2017, it was alleged, a drone was flown over the then under construction home of Erin and Matt Henderson, in the Spur/Rock Shop Road area northwest of Vienna.

Erin testified that the drone was about at tree-top level, hovered and that several other people who were working on the house saw it.

She said that within the next few days, at a chance encounter at an area convenience store, she overheard Benson, who they knew, discussing drone flying with another customer standing in the checkout line. She asked if the one she had seen over her house belonged to him, to which he gave a non-committal answer.

Erin then testified, “If Matt sees it, he’ll shoot it down.”

Erin said she then phoned her husband Matt and told him of the conversation. Immediately afterward, she said, Benson called her husband and they had a conversation about the issue.

On cross-examination, defense attorney bird asked Erin to describe the drone and the height that it flew. He also asked if Benson ever directly admitted that it was his craft, to which she replied, “He didn’t deny it.”

Next up, Matt Henderson testified to the same observations as his wife concerning the drone overflight of his property, and recounted his conversations with Benson. He said he also met with Benson.

At this point, it was revealed that Benson is a local builder/contractor and cabinet maker. Apparently, he has bid on several home construction jobs in the area and has done work on some of them.

Matt said that he and Benson discussed the ongoing construction at his home, but that Benson did no work on it.

Matt testified that Benson never explicitly admitted the drone flight, but that he took it to be his equipment since he promised “not to do it again.”

At this point Benson took the stand, and while not admitting that particular overflight of the Henderson property, he said that it was likely that he had overflown it at one time or another.

He also denied any low level surveillance, as it the drone would likely encounter trees, powerlines, and other obstacles during flight. He explained that a drone camera can only look in one direction and cannot “see” to the side, or up and down. The only way to fly at low levels with obstructions nearby is to stay within line-of-sight of the aircraft, he said. Flying at low levels with only the drone camera as guidance is not safe to do, Benson said.

He always operates the equipment at elevations near 400′, he claimed, as that is the upper flight level that the Federal Aviation Administration has placed on drones.

In arguing against admitting this “other act” as evidence, Bird noted that there was no arrest or conviction regarding the alleged incident, and that no police report was ever filed.

Hampton ruled that the testimony would be allowed at trial, because it might affect the overall weight of the evidence.

The third motion, a motion in limine by Thompson to exclude computer flight logs of the drone flights, was denied by Hampton.

Thompson argued that the logs hadn’t been authenticated, and might be flawed. Bird noted that the prosecution could have subpoenaed the data prior to the trial but never did so.

Hampton ruled that the prosecution would have ample time at trial to attack the accuracy of the evidence.

With the motions ruled upon, at about 4:15 PM, the state called its first witness, neighbor Regina Johnson.

She testified, in rather dramatic fashion, of a February, 2018 drone overflight of her recently occupied home in the neighborhood. She said the aircraft came down to second story roof level of home and hovered.

“Who’s watching me?” she thought at the time.

Several photos of the home and property were introduced as exhibits, with notations as to where on the property she was standing when the alleged overflight occurred.

Several days later, she said, another overflight occurred at tree-top level, and she noted that the craft headed into the direction of Benson’s home.

Johnson said she contacted Matt Henderson, who is a Lincoln Parish Sheriff’s Office (LPSO) deputy and told him of the incidents.

Thompson led Johnson through several pages of a text message group chat among the neighbors that included Benson.

On cross-examination, Bird asked Johnson about the relationship between Benson and her family, and she said they weren’t particularly cordial.

Benson had visited with the Johnson’s when they first moved in, as the Johnson home wasn’t completely finished, and Benson apparently was interested in work.

The last witness of the day was another neighbor at the time, Joni Baillo, who has since moved away.

Baillo recounted the group text discussion and that she had initiated the discussion. She said she knew Benson and considered him a friend.

She recalled a visit from Benson around the time of alleged February, 2018 incident, and him becoming agitated saying, “Nobody’s gonna shoot down my drone,” and “nobody can tell me what to do” with it.

At that time, Baillo asked him to leave, she said.

At about 5:30 PM, Hampton recessed the trial and took the two attorneys into the jury room to discuss another date to continue the trial, as it was evident that several more witnesses would be called, and the trial might take another day or more to complete.

Thursday, March 12, 10:30 AM was agreed upon by the parties.

One other notable item was the presence of several LPSO deputies in court, in addition to the regular courtroom bailiffs with whom we are familiar.

There were several other plainclothes law enforcement officers there, possibly investigators with the Attorney General’s Office.

12 Responses to “Testimony Begins in Drone Trial”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Mr Abbot there were no drone / Ariel photos in court , those were camera pics prosecution took … just FYI

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Overflights are not trespassing. Our betters are becoming increasingly totalitarian.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Where’s the crime? Where’ the damage?

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Very odd to start trail with testimony shut it down after only 1 day then reset for appox 25 days..

  5. Anonymous Says:

    This man is being Railroaded at his expense and the state is using our tax dollars to do it ! LPSO should be ashamed

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Ain’t nobody gonna mess with our house! You mesh with our brother you going to be slammed

  7. Robert Naugle Says:

    How can you prosecute some one for flying a drone? If that is the case then any or all flying objects is illegal including RC air planes, helicopters. Ballons and kites! And fireworks, If he crashed it into something on their property then he is lieable for damages!

  8. thislamp Says:

    Whatever became of this trial? I could not find any further entries.

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