Criminal surveillance, or innocent droning?

David Beesmer. (NYSP photo)

David Beesmer. (NYSP photo)

“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, 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.”

There are 14 comments

  1. gerald berke

    I would consider that an illegal arrest, police lawlessness, police abetted vigilantism.
    Far away from the murder charges against police, nonetheless we are moving closer to where police must operate within the law: their driving, their public demeanor, they go not get a pass on civil legal behavior because they are police. Indeed, people that carry guns must submit to an even higher standard, like say, a commercial pilot whose deportment must be beyond reproach.

  2. Beth Johnson

    I was there that day at the Medical Center, and let me tell you that it was creepy and alarming to see this drone come up to the windows and then go visit other windows at the building. I would not consider this to be an illegal arrest, far from it. I do believe that Front Row Dave is self centered enough to have not given thought to the alarm his actions created… there were persons disrobing in exam rooms who were greeted by the sight of this drone in the window. And yes, apparently the windows are tinted… but… I have neighbors with tinted windows who seem to think that they are incognito and need to put up some curtains. Dave needs to be held accountable for his actions, even though I truly do not think he meant harm by them he still gave no thought at all to anything except his own benefit which is fine if you are playing with your drone at a Mall for the same purpose. Don’t do it at a Medical Building. Idiot.

    1. Derek

      Except that it’s already established that there was no images of anyone on the other side (ie, patient side) of the glass.

      So there was no *intent*, and there was no *harm*.

      Waste of taxpayer money.

      1. gerald berke

        Derek: that like the cars that drive really close but don’t make contact or those same drivers that speed with precision through the traffic circle… oh, ah yes, that game the kids play: “I did not cross the line!!! I only came close!! Or the friendly subway rider…
        The lack of “intent” is not an excuse under the law… (passive aggression) and running your car up on the sidewalk even though there were no pedestrians… that’s a no no.
        Happy for the drone work, but he doesn’t get a pass for bad behavior..

        1. Derek

          Actually, in many statutes, demonstrating intent *is* in fact a requirement for conviction.

          For example, NY Penal Law 250.45(1) (the unlawful surveillance statute in play here) intent *IS* in fact part of the statute. They would have to demonstrate that he intended to use a device for the purpose of surreptitious viewing (intent which clearly doesn’t exist, a point which seems undisputed).

  3. nopolitics

    I heard of it, but somehow I fear he will not get off that easily. And who gave him the nickname “Front Row Dave” anyway?

  4. Benjamin Houston

    Privacy issues aside, this is a completely illegal use of a commercial UAV under current Federal law. Clearly within five miles of an airport (illegal), flown in a populated area (illegal), and unless Dave is a certified sport pilot with an approved Section 333 Exemption from the FAA, AND has an approved Certificate of Authorization (COA) to fly in that location, also totally illegal. There is a legal regulatory framework for legitimate commercial use of UAVs, and they can and will be a huge contributor to the economy. “Enthusiasts” like this need to either get right with the current law or be shut down. They have no business operating in the commercial UAV market.

    1. Derek

      It’s not a “commercial UAV”. At no time was the defendant attempting to use the footage for commercial purposes (at least, not that I’ve seen documented anywhere).

      The “Five Mile” rule had been in effect for less than a month when this flight took place (the FAA clarified that rule to include drones within five miles in June’14, this incident occurred in July’14).

      Re: “Flown in a populated area”, one could easily argue that the parking lot isn’t “populated”, as nobody lives there, and in fact there aren’t many (if any) residences within the operating area he was operating the quad-copter.

      Quad-copters don’t require any of the various exemptions and certifications you’re referring to (again, at least not according to any statutory authority that I’ve seen).

      Perhaps you’re mixing up commercial use (which this is NOT a case of) with hobbyist. Because the FAA *does* treat those two use-cases differently.

      1. Benjamin Houston

        Derek- thanks for your comments. I dont think I am mixing anything up. I operate a drone data processing company and work with Section 333 Exempt commercial drone pilots. I have been to Washington to sit in the room with FAA UAV leaders. Selling video footage is commercial. Period. You cannot be a hobbyist and sell your services for pay. DJI Phantoms are absolutely considered under FAA Section 333 as aircraft in the US Airspace if operating commercially. Several legitimate exemptions have been issued by the FAA for DJI Phantom use. This illustrates how dangerous the claim of “hobbyist” is on public safety. We’ll have to agree to disagree, but this is totally illegal without proper licensing and certification. Just because a law is “new” doesnt mean you arent obligated to follow it. If you are going to operate commercially, know the law. New Section 107 regulations will reduce the requirements to operate commercially (i.e, Airman’s knowledge exam vs sport pilot license…even for a parrot or a phantom), but still require specific authorizations to fly over people whose permission you did not secure in advance. That includes people who have a reasonable expectation to park their car in a parking lot and not get hit by a poorly piloted commercial aircraft. My point is there are a whole host of non-privacy related issues here.

        1. Derek

          All of that is largely irrelevant as he has not been charged with any of those crimes.

          All that currently matters — legally — is whether he meets the definition of unlawful surveillance 2, which he does not.

          If the FAA decides to bring charges with regard to the violations of federal statutes, that’s a whole different case for a whole different time.

          1. Benjamin Houston

            Agreed. I think the privacy call is bunk and there was no intent, just ignorance. Not malicious ignorance, just the clueless, unprofessional type. I actually think his purpose is a legitimate use of the technology. What I am against is unregistered and unlicensed use of UAVs that puts people unnecessarily at risk. A regulated and professional UAV market is what we need to ensure quality, safety, AND privacy.

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