Illegal drone operator pleads guilty after attempting to drop drugs into Georgia state prison

Middle District of Georgia U.S. Attorney Charles Peeler said a Georgia man who was illegally operating an unmanned aircraft system to drop contraband into Autry State Prison in Pelham pleaded guilty to the crime last week. 

ALBANY – A Georgia man who was illegally operating an unmanned aircraft system to drop contraband into Autry State Prison has pleaded guilty to the crime, Middle District of Georgia U.S. Attorney Charles Peeler said.

Eric Lee Brown, 35, of Lithonia, pleaded guilty to one count of operating an aircraft eligible for registration knowing that the aircraft is not registered to facilitate a controlled substance offense before U.S. Senior District Court Judge Louis Sands last week.

“We are pleased to see justice being served on this individual, and we hope that his actions, and subsequent prosecution in the first-known criminal prosecution under this drone registration law, will serve as a warning to others considering introducing contraband into our facilities,” Timothy C. Ward, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, said.

“We applaud the work of our special agents, and we appreciate the commitment and collaboration of our law enforcement partners in their efforts to help ensure the safety of the public.”

Brown is facing a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, three years supervised release and a fine of $250,000.

He admitted in his signed plea agreement that he attempted to use a drone to drop a large bag of marijuana into Autry State Prison in Pelham.

Mitchell County deputies responded to a call on March 29, 2018 about a vehicle impeding the flow of traffic near the prison. Officials said Brown was inside the vehicle, and deputies smelled marijuana and observed the drone.

They also saw two clear plastic bags containing a green, leafy substance later confirmed to be 294 grams of marijuana. Brown was taken into custody, and search warrants revealed detailed conversations about using the drone to drop drugs into the prison.

“Mr. Brown’s guilty plea should be a very clear warning to anyone who chooses to illegally operate unmanned aircraft systems for unintended purposes,” Todd Damiani, Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General regional special agent in charge, said. “DOT OIG special agents, along with our federal, state, and prosecutorial law enforcement partners, will actively pursue those who unlawfully use federally-regulated modes of transportation for the distribution of controlled substances or contraband.”

Officials said Brown did not register the DJI Phantom 4 drone found in his possession, and he also did not have a valid Federal Aviation Administration airman’s certificate or remote pilot certificate, both actions required by law.

“Working with state, local and federal authorities, our office will aggressively prosecute those who choose to smuggle cellphones, drugs or any other contraband into our state prisons,” Peeler said. “The use of drones is regulated by federal criminal statutes, and our office will not hesitate to use those statutes in the fight against prison contraband.

“I applaud the Department of Transportation, the Georgia Department of Corrections and our local law enforcement for thinking creatively to bring this defendant to justice.”

The case was investigated by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, Georgia Department of Corrections and Mitchell County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Leah E. McEwen is prosecuting the case for the federal government.