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Georgia man pleads guilty in plot to use drone to drop marijuana in prison

Eric Lee Brown was not charged with actually dropping drugs into the prison, but admitted that he intended to use the drone to do so, prosecutors said.
The entrance to Autry State Prison near Pelham, Ga., is seen on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005.
The entrance to Autry State Prison near Pelham, Ga., is seen on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005.Elliott Minor / AP

A Georgia man pleaded guilty on Thursday to using a drone to try and drop a bag of marijuana into a prison, federal prosecutors said.

It's being called the first known criminal prosecution of a case under a drone registration law.

Eric Lee Brown, 35, of Lithonia, pleaded guilty to a single count of “operating an aircraft eligible for registration knowing that the aircraft is not registered to facilitate a controlled substance offense,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Middle District of Georgia said in a statement.

Under a plea agreement, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of up to $250,000, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Plea agreement documents suggest that prosecutors will recommend that Brown receive a downward adjustment in an advisory sentencing guideline range if he accepts responsibility.

An email to a federal defender that court documents say represents Brown was not immediately returned early Friday.

Brown was not charged with using the drone to actually drop the drugs into the Autry State Prison in Pelham in March 2018. But he admitted that he intended to deliver drugs to the prison, according to court documents.

Prosecutors said that on March 29, 2018, Mitchell County deputies were called about a vehicle interfering with the flow of traffic near the prison and found Mitchell inside it with 294 grams, or just over 10 ounces, of marijuana as well as the drone, a DJI Phantom 4.

He never registered the drone and did not have a Federal Aviation Administration airman’s certificate or a remote pilot certificate as required by federal law, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Cellphone searches allegedly revealed that Brown exchanged text messages with someone about getting the drone, which was purchased a week before his arrest, and using it to transport marijuana.

U.S. Attorney Charlie Peeler said that his office will aggressively pursue cases against those trying to smuggle contraband into prisons.

"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," he said in the statement.

Timothy C. Ward, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, said in a statement that this "first-known criminal prosecution under this drone registration law" should serve as a warning to others.

Brown is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 3, according to federal court records.

Autry State Prison is a medium-security prison for male felons in Pelham, which is in the southern part of the state around 25 miles south of Albany.

There have been other cases involving a drone carrying drugs and contraband used to try and get those items into a prison.

In October 2015, Oklahoma's department of corrections said it found a drone with two hacksaw blades, a little more than 5 ounces of marijuana and smaller amounts of methamphetamine and heroin crashed into the grounds of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

In August of that same year, a brawl broke out in a prison yard in Ohio after a drone dropped drugs and tobacco and the package was picked up by an inmate for whom it was not intended, officials said at the time.

And in 2017, a drone was used to drop a cellphone and drugs into Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, the Michigan Department of Corrections said at the time. The drone was noticed by staff which intercepted the packages.