“Front Row” Dave Beesmer says he was just looking for a potential client for his fledgling drone video business back in July when he recorded aerial footage of a new medical office building in the Town of Ulster.
But police saw things differently. Now, the 49-year-old videographer — previously best known as a fixture at local rock shows — finds himself at the center of a budding debate over privacy and technology in an age where the skies are increasingly filled with remotely operated aircraft. Beesmer went on trial Friday, May 1 in Ulster Town Court in what experts believe is the first American criminal case stemming from alleged unlawful surveillance by drone.
“Front Row Dave is not a professional martyr, he’s just a guy who likes to shoot rock shows and nature,” said Beesmer’s attorney, Eric Schneider. “It’s been scary for him to find himself in the position of a pioneer.”
Beesmer’s journey to the front lines of the drone debate began innocently enough when he took his mother to a medical appointment at Mid-Hudson Medical Group in Lake Katrine back on July 14 of last year. While he was waiting, Beesmer, who was looking to expand his traditional videography business with drone technology, decided to shoot some footage of the new office building’s exterior using a DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter. Moments after taking the video, Beesmer walked into the lobby of the medical office, handed a business card to a receptionist and suggested that the new practice might be able to use the footage for advertising and promotion. Beesmer repeated the pitch to other office staff. A short time later, state police arrived and Beesmer was taken into custody.
Schneider said video from a state police interrogation room shows Beesmer, unaware that he’s about to be charged with a felony, describing his concept for an advertisement — “medicine soaring to new heights” to an apparently bemused trooper.
In fact, Schneider said, police appeared almost as perplexed as Beesmer at the situation. “At one point the state trooper in the video looks at Dave and says, ‘I don’t know what to charge you with.’”
As it turns out, the charge was second-degree unlawful surveillance, a Class E felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in state prison. The statute, enacted to combat video voyeurs, targets anyone who “surreptitiously” and “for no legitimate purpose” uses or installs an imaging device in a place, like a changing room, where there is an expectation of privacy or for the express purpose of viewing an unwitting victim’s intimate parts. Prosecutors say that Beesmer violated the law when he flew the camera equipped drone within 10 or 15 feet of windows of exam rooms where patients might be viewed and recorded in various states of undress. The charge was later dropped to misdemeanor attempted unlawful surveillance which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail.
“When you have a drone that’s in a position where it can take pictures inside a room where people are undressing, it’s a problem,” said Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright. “You don’t want to create an environment where people can buy a new toy and use it to look in their neighbors’ windows or hospital windows.”
But Schneider believes that Beesmer’s arrest and prosecution has more to do with anti-drone hysteria than legitimate privacy concerns. Schneider said that there was nothing surreptitious about Beesmer’s filming — he was standing outside the medical center in broad daylight wearing an orange shirt and after filming he walked into the office identified himself and described the footage he’d just shot. Nor, Schneider said, did Beesmer’s actions meet the “no legitimate purpose” threshold. Schneider said Beesmer had purchased drone-video related Internet domain names, including droneweddings.com, and was clearly interested in securing the medical group as a client for his business.
“It was overkill,” said Schneider. “It should have been dismissed.”