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Arrest Made in Crash of Drone Carrying Drugs to South Carolina Prison

An arrest has been made in the case involving a drug-carrying drone that crashed in the woods near the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, before reaching its destination inside the prison to drop off the contraband.

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On April 21, 2014, at around 1:44 a.m., security cameras at Lee caught an unidentified flying object flying toward the prison fence. When a correction officer was sent to investigate it, she saw a man running into the wooded area around the prison. Later at dawn, investigators found a package tangled in power lines near the prison. It contained tobacco, marijuana and a smart phone. They also found a crashed drone in the bushes nearby. Further into the woods, they found a makeshift camp ground, the remote control used to operate the drone, drugs, and a bottle of grape-flavored Gatorade.

According to Bryan P. Stirling, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, the drone’s operators planned to smuggle small amounts of contraband into the prison during repeated trips.

Last week, a man allegedly involved in the operation was arrested in Tennessee. The first arrest made in the case occurred when investigators discovered a receipt from a convenience store at the campground where the smugglers were hiding. The store’s surveillance cameras revealed the drone operators, according to police.  

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“They [drone operators] would put it [drugs] on there [drone], they would deliver it, someone inside would get it somehow, and they would send it back out and send more in,” Stirling told The New York Times.

In recent years, some criminals have used drones as a new-age alternative to getting drugs into prisons by hiding it in incoming laundry or by placing it in packages disguised as rocks, which are thrown over fences surrounding recreational areas in prisons.

At least three similar drone incidents occurred at American correctional facilities in the last two years.

In January, guards at a prison in Bennettsville, S.C., found a drone carrying 55 grams of synthetic marijuana and a cell phone charger inside a recreational yard.

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The most recent drone incident adds more to the debate over how drones should be regulated as law enforcement agencies, companies and privacy watchdogs struggle with analyzing existing laws which seem outdated and confusing.

“It’s a new area and we don’t know the full extent of drones’ capabilities — both good and bad — and because of that, we don’t know what the gaps are in the laws and what we need to do to clarify them,” said Lisa Ellman, who helps lead the unmanned aircraft systems practice group at the law firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge in Washington.

In January, a hobbyist’s drone made its way over the White House before crashing on the South Lawn.

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