Active: Federal lawsuit challenges unconstitutional application of Michigan’s drone statute

Mike Yoder had been flying drones long before he started his company, Drone Deer Recovery Media, Inc., in the fall of 2022. Mike’s inspiration for the business arose from his love of hunting and technology on one hand and his unique upbringing on the other (he comes from an Amish community in Ohio, where hard work, setting goals, and business-building is the norm). After seeing a Wisconsin hunter use a drone for game recovery, Mike realized that using a drone to find downed game was far less disruptive and more efficient than tracking dogs or trail cameras.

Drone Deer Recovery initially focused on using drones to help hunters locate downed game. The company was an instant success, so Mike expanded the company by offering drone licensing packages that provide training and equipment to operators looking to start their own drone location businesses. With virtually endless possibilities for drone uses, Mike sees Drone Deer Recovery as the Uber of the drone industry, jump-starting drone entrepreneurs in their home states.

But not Michigan. The state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) warned Mike that the state’s “Drone Statute” bans all drone use in hunting, even locating downed game after the hunter has stored his weapons. Violators can face up to 90 days in prison or a fine of up to $1,000.

State lawmakers passed the law in 2015 to ban technology-assisted hunting, with little indication they were targeting drone use in locating already-downed game. And the DNR itself still uses drones. The DNR started its drone program in 2016—shortly after the legislature banned drones for hunting—and by 2020, the DNR’s Forest Resources Division boasted seven licensed pilots and 10 drones of different sizes and capabilities.

While the government enjoys using drones to assess forest health, search for wildlife, and collect visuals showing Michigan’s exquisite landscapes, Mike can neither communicate the information his customers, like Jeremy Funke, want, nor expand operations and entrepreneurship into Michigan.

Mike and Drone Deer Recovery have a First Amendment right to collect and provide information regarding the location of downed game; DDR customers—including lifelong Michigan hunter Jeremy Funke—have a right to receive that information. By interpreting the law to include a ban on these activities, the DNR violates the free speech rights of DDR and its customers. States such as Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and Pennsylvania prohibit a similar use of drones—all states Mike has his sights on for expansion.

Hunting isn’t the only area caught in the government’s crosshairs. Increasingly, drone use is becoming popular to aid in a variety of businesses. As with every new technology, the government often throws up unreasonable resistance, stretching legal boundaries to limit the unfamiliar. In addition to entrepreneurs, artists and other content creators may also find the government limiting their First Amendment rights.

Represented free of charge by Pacific Legal Foundation, Mike, Drone Deer Recovery, and Jeremy are fighting back with a federal lawsuit. They’re challenging the Michigan DNR’s wrongful application of a law that prevents DDR from providing valuable services and empowering others in Michigan to start new businesses and build livelihoods.

What’s At Stake?

  • The Constitution protects speech, regardless of whether it’s commercial. Prohibiting a business and its customers from collecting, disseminating, and receiving information violates the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

Case Timeline

February 02, 2024
First Amended Complaint
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan
July 27, 2023
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan