With veto on drone bill, Gov. Brown endangers the public

In this video frame, vehicles burn as a fast-moving wildfire swept across Interstate 15 in July. Drones hampered firefighting efforts.
In this video frame, vehicles burn as a fast-moving wildfire swept across Interstate 15 in July. Drones hampered firefighting efforts. NBC4 via AP

Gov. Jerry Brown made a serious error by vetoing my Senate Bill 168. By doing so, he put emergency responders, property and the lives of Californians unnecessarily at risk.

SB 168 tackled a new menace in California, unauthorized drones in emergency zones, including above wildfires. Drones are amazing, and I want to see the industry flourish in California. I want to see hobbyists having fun, and businesses using them to deliver packages, take photos or in other creative ways we can’t even imagine. And I want to see public safety agencies using them to help save lives and property.

But drones have no business flying in dangerous emergency areas and interfering with public safety.

My bill would have given civil immunity to emergency personnel who damaged a drone in the course of their duty. It would have also penalized reckless drone users with as long as six months of jail time, which is consistent with current law on interfering with emergency workers, and increased the fine to as much as $5,000.

I wanted stronger penalties to send a clear message to anyone piloting a drone over a fire that their actions are contemptible, but I tried to meet the governor in the middle, knowing he is sensitive to creating new crimes in California.

Apparently, there is no halfway point with the governor on crime. While I appreciate a thoughtful discussion of our penal system, Brown’s veto of this important legislation shows a reflexive, anti-punishment strain that threatens every Californian who is fighting fires and responding to life-saving emergencies.

Brown, the moving force behind the prison “realignment” that has pushed thousands of criminals back on the street, has again let his ideology trump the needs of residents.

New technologies will lead to new crimes. Laws should adapt accordingly to protect public safety. It is absurd to say the advent of the automobile, or the Internet or drones will not lead to unforeseen situations that are unique and require unique laws.

Wildfires have savaged our state this year. More than 1,000 homes are now sad piles of ash and people around the state are thinking about the painful task of rebuilding or relocating. But probably the most compelling image of the fire season was that of terrified motorists running for their lives as the North fire swept over Interstate 15 and torched their vehicles.

Drones caused air tankers to divert their flame-retardant loads away from the fire. By the time the drones left and it was safe to resume their mission, 15 critical minutes had passed. We are lucky that only vehicles were damaged. Next time, there might not be an exit route and we may be mourning a loss of life.

Despite his “no new crimes” mantra, Gov. Brown did sign one drone-related bill that expanded a penalty. The bill aimed to protect celebrities from paparazzi using drones to snap their photos. So Brown will add new penalties to protect the Kardashians, but not firefighters or families living in wildfire areas.

To borrow from another governor, I want Brown to know that “I’ll be back.” I want to work with him for a solution next year when this problem will likely be far worse than it was this year because it’s expected that 1 million new drones will be given as holiday gifts.

Drone operators need to understand all air safety laws and use common sense. But if they ignore the law and expose everyone to direct and unnecessary risk, they should be punished. SB 168 would have done just that.

Ted Gaines, an El Dorado Hills Republican, represents the 1st state Senate District.