ALBANY – A Georgia man who was illegally operating an unmanned aircraft system to drop contraband into Autry State Prison was sentenced to 48 months in prison for his crime, the office of U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Charles Peeler announced recently.

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. District Court Judge Louis Sands. Sands sentenced the defendant to 48 months in prison, followed by three years supervised release. There is no parole in the federal system.

Brown 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. 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 that later was confirmed to be 294 grams of marijuana.

Brown was taken into custody. Search warrants revealed detailed conversations about using the drone to drop drugs into the prison. Brown did not register the DJI Phantom 4 drone that was found in his possession, and he also did not have a valid FAA Airman’s Certificate or Remote Pilot Certificate, both actions required by law.

“Smugglers using drones or other means to move illegal contraband and drugs into our prisons will face prosecution and penalties in the Middle District of Georgia,” Peeler said in a statement issued to media. “The public needs to be aware that the use of drones is regulated by federal criminal statutes. Our office will enforce those laws in order to keep illegal contraband and drugs out of our prisons. I want to thank the Mitchell County Sheriff’s Office, the Georgia Department of Corrections and Department of Transportation for their excellent work in this matter.”

“The smuggling of drugs into the state prison is an ongoing battle. It is good that we can prosecute these kinds of cases at the federal level and put an end to this kind of activity,” Mitchell County Sheriff W.E. Bozeman said.

“Today’s sentencing sets a new precedent for the federal criminal investigation and prosecution of unlawful UAS operations and sends a strong message that such activities will not be tolerated,” Todd Damiani, Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General Regional Special Agent in Charge, said. “As the use of UAS proliferates, DOT-OIG special agents, working alongside our federal, state and other law enforcement partners, will continue to bring to justice individuals who violate UAS regulations and engage in criminal use of this technology.”

“The GDC is pleased to see this case come to a close, with Brown receiving justice for his role in jeopardizing the safety of our staff, our facilities and the public,” Commissioner Timothy C. Ward of the Georgia Department of Corrections said. “We are hopeful this outcome will serve as a warning to others considering introducing contraband into our facilities, and we are proud of the work of our special agents and the continued collaboration of our law enforcement partners.”

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

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