US Soldier Loses Appeal to Have $1,500 Drone Returned After Taking Photos of 2019 Oktoberfest

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An aerial view of the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.
An aerial view of the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. (Stars and Stripes)

GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- A U.S. soldier who was fined 500 euros and had his electronics confiscated after shooting aerial pictures of the 2019 Oktoberfest in Munich has lost his appeal to have his drone returned to him, court officials said Monday.

The service member, whom German media reports and the Army have identified as Feng Q., in late September 2019 violated a German law when he flew his drone over the vast field where Oktoberfest is held, a spokesman for the district court in Munich, Klaus-Peter Juengst, told Stars and Stripes by email.

A law enacted on Aug. 1, 2019, declared the air space above Oktoberfest a no-fly zone, Juengst said.

The soldier, who the Army said is assigned to U.S. Medical Department Activity Bavaria in Vilseck, said "there were no signs anywhere" to indicate flying was forbidden over the Theresienwiese, where the beer festival is held, the Bild Zeitung tabloid quoted him as saying.

But the court argued that it was reasonable to expect him and anyone else to know that "flying an object over a gathering of people like the Oktoberfest is prohibited," Juengst said. The authorities estimate that 6.3 million people attended the beer festival, which ran from Sept. 21 to Oct. 6, 2019.

German police were able to track down the American as he flew his drone around 150 feet above the festival on the opening night. They confiscated the drone and his cellphone, and he was fined 500 euros.

"He paid the fine after the event," said Alain Polynice, a spokesperson for MEDDAC Bavaria, but had to go to court to ask for his devices back.

The court in Munich agreed Friday to return the soldier's phone but rejected his request to recover his drone, with the prosecution arguing that "the defendant's request for the return of his possessions indicated an ongoing risk that he intended to use the drone again," Juengst said.

Under German law, confiscated goods that were used in the commission of a crime or misdemeanor can only be returned if the risk of the goods being used to commit a similar offense has been ruled out, he said.

Feng told the court that the phone was not used to control the drone, Juengst said.

The soldier wasn't the only person flying a drone over Oktoberfest in 2019, which is the last time it was held.

"One of the police officers who testified said there were probably six or seven other drone flights over the Oktoberfest," but the police weren't able to track down all of them, Juengst said.

Last year, the famous beer festival was canceled for the first time since World War II because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Feng and the public prosecutor both waived the right to appeal the decision, making it final, Juengst said, adding that the district court has no say over what will happen to the drone. The aircraft was valued at about $1,500, Bild reported.

"The public prosecutor's office in Munich will decide if it will be used or destroyed," he said.

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