A guilty plea was entered in federal court last week in a case involving the illegal importation of an unmanned drone according to an announcement by the Department of Justice. Henson Chua was indicted in March for trying to sell an unmanned aerial vehicle known as a "Raven" in violation of the Arms Export Control Act ("the Act"). The Act prohibits buying and selling certain military items without a license, and the Raven is such an item.
According to the facts outlined in the plea agreement, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") learned that an unmanned drone was listed for sale on eBay for $13,000. Homeland Security agents began an investigation with an undercover agent posing as a potential buyer. The "buyer" informed Chua that he planned to resell the drone outside the United States after receiving it from Chua. The agents purchased and received the drone last year. Chua was arrested earlier this year when he entered the US.
Chua pled guilty to one count of causing the temporary import of a defense article without authorization under 22 U.S.C. § 2778. This provision requires a party to obtain a license from the federal government before importing certain munitions. This section of the Act also provides penalties of imprisonment for up to 20 years, a fine up to $1 million, or both.
In announcing the plea, ICE agent Susan McCormick stated, "The unlawful import of military technology poses a serious threat to our national security. ICE is committed to working with the U.S. Attorney's Office and military investigators to protect the American public and our military troops overseas from this kind of technology falling into the wrong hands."
The alleged purpose of the Act is intended to do just that: prevent American military equipment and technology from reaching those who would use it against American interests. In this case, the Department of Homeland Security recovered the drone, but it's worth noting, however, how Chua claims he obtained the drone in the first place. Chua stated that he was able to purchase it at an auction conducted by the Philippine government. Apparently, the Philippine government considered the Raven to be abandoned property. While Chua's case represents a success for the prosecution in using the Act to prevent such equipment from potentially falling into the hands of arms dealers, criminals, or hostile governments - who apparently need only sign up for eBay to obtain it - the case also illustrates the limits of such laws when these items are already available for sale halfway across the globe. Buyer (and seller) beware.