“Front Row” Dave Beesmer earned his moniker nearly a decade ago when he spent four days standing on a London street waiting for prime seats for the 2007 Led Zeppelin O2 Arena reunion show.
Last week, the 50-year-old videographer had front row seats to another first when he sat at the defense table in Ulster Town Court in what is believed to be the first ever criminal prosecution involving a charge of illegally using a drone.
Beesmer stood accused of misdemeanor unlawful surveillance stemming from footage he shot of a Lake Katrine medical facility back on July 15, 2014. Prosecutors tried to convince a jury that Beesmer used his camera-equipped DJI PhantomVision Quadcopter to try to shoot video inside exam rooms where patients had an expectation of privacy. Beesmer argued that he wasn’t up to anything malicious or illegal — he simply wanted to try out his new drone and maybe sell footage of the new medical building to its owners.
In the end, a jury agreed with Beesmer and returned an acquittal in the landmark case.
“I’m very relieved,” said Beesmer speaking to Woodstock Times following his acquittal. “This has been going on for a year and needless to say it has been affecting me in every way possible.”
The story of America’s first ever drone-crime prosecution began on July 15, 2014 when Beesmer, who got his start shooting video of rock shows and interviews with musicians, took his mother to an appointment at Mid-Hudson Medical Group’s new facility on Ulster Avenue, across 9W from Adams Fairacre Farms. The building towers over the Ulster Avenue commercial strip and Beesmer thought it would be a worthy subject for his brand-new drone; he’d already shot exterior footage of the nearby Best Buy store and the Planet Woodstock music shop in the Town of Ulster. With the drone, he saw potential to expand his business and keep up with budding technology. “It’s absolutely amazing technology that can only enhance what any photographer or videographer does,” said Beesmer.
Beesmer flew his drone up to the fourth floor of the facility, shooting footage of the exterior. A short time later he walked into the building and informed staff that he had taken some video that might be useful for promotional purposes.
But Mid-Hudson Medical Group staffers said they and patients became alarmed when they spotted the drone — and the camera mounted on the underside — hovering just a few feet from exam room windows. At a May trial which ended in a mistrial after jurors inadvertently heard evidence of Beesmer’s earlier run-ins with the law, Mid-Hudson Medical Group Patient Care Coordinator Rene Christiano testified that she confronted Beesmer inside the building shortly after the filming. Beesmer, she said, initially claimed he didn’t know that the building was a medical facility, then showed her a pair of video clips he’d shot. Beesmer then left, leaving behind a business card for “Front Row Dave Productions.” Afterwards, Christiano testified, she called the CEO of the medical group who advised her to contact police.
Beesmer said that he had no idea he was in trouble when a state trooper called him to discuss the drone. In fact, he volunteered to meet the cop in the parking lot of the Hudson Valley Mall to give him a demonstration. Afterwards, he followed the trooper to the state police barracks on Route 209 for an interview with an investigator. According to Beesmer’s attorney, Eric Schneider, police seemed unsure whether to charge Beesmer and, if so, with what. When they finally informed Beesmer that he was under arrest for felony unlawful surveillance — a statute aimed at voyeurs who carry out clandestine photography in changing rooms and other private places — Schneider said Beesmer’s shock is apparent in a video of the interrogation.
“It’s a visceral reaction, you can see it on the tape,” said Schneider, who believes the video swayed at least one juror to acquit. “Absolute shock and disbelief.”
No interior images
Schneider said he believed from the beginning that the defense argument was a strong one. Beesmer’s drone’s camera was not equipped with a zoom lens and the windows of the building were opaque — the video shows nothing of the interior of the medical facility. The unlawful surveillance statute meanwhile requires that the photography be “surreptitious” and “for no legitimate purpose.” Schneider said the fact that Beesmer had entered the building, informed staff that he had taken footage and left behind a business card showed that there was nothing surreptitious at all about his actions and added that Beesmer’s registration of Internet domain names like “hudsonvalleydroneweddings.com” showed that he had a legitimate business interest in drone photography. Instead, Schneider said, he worried that jurors’ unease with new technology and its implications for privacy would cause them to ignore the facts of the case.
“My main concern was that jurors would vote based on emotion rather than the facts and the letter of the law,” said Schneider. “My job was to lay the facts out and keep the jurors focused on that.”
Schneider said he hopes the acquittal, in a case that was closely watched by drone enthusiasts nationwide, would help clarify the rules and set a precedent in similar cases.
“There might be people out there who are purposely, egregiously abusing the technology, and they’re still going to have to face the music,” said Schneider. “But nobody should have to go through what Dave went through.”
DA: Privacy at risk
District Attorney Holley Carnright, though, stood by the prosecution. Carnright said following the acquittal, that privately owned camera-equipped drones pose a serious new threat to personal privacy. Carnright used the example of someone using a drone to film a woman sunbathing in the privacy of a fenced-in backyard. Carnright said prosecutors would have to rely on existing statutes to deal with potential invasions of privacy until state and federal lawmakers came up with new regulations for the emerging technology.
“It’s not the drone I’m worried about, it’s the camera on the drone. We’re trying to regulate surveillance,” said Carnright. “When you put a camera on a robot or a drone it becomes a potential problem that we will continue to be mindful of.”
Beesmer said he would continue to practice drone photography using the quadcopter he got back from prosecutors following his acquittal, and another one he bought while awaiting trial. Beesmer said he believes in the new technology and its usefulness, but conceded that he might be more cautious in the future.
“I should have asked permission first,” said Beesmer. “That was my mistake, not shooting the video, but not asking first.”