This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Michael Huerta, celebrated a successful launch of his agency’s new drone owners’ registry.

Since Dec. 21, 181,000 Americans have provided FAA bureaucrats with their names and addresses, identifying themselves as owners of a drone weighing 0.55 pounds or more. This is, they say, an important milestone for a registry that will promote safety and accountability, and deter bad actors.

But while federal officials took a victory lap, they left a critical detail unsaid: Thanks to the FAA’s rushed regulatory action, many thousands of otherwise innocent Americans have just been made criminals.

How so? Per the FAA’s new registry requirement, it is a felony offense merely to fail to register before your first flight if you own a drone that meets the weight threshold. If found guilty, you face three years’ imprisonment with possible civil fines of $27,500 and criminal sanctions of $250,000.

If found guilty, you face three years’ imprisonment with possible civil fines of $27,500 and criminal sanctions of $250,000.

While the FAA touts the fact that more than 180,000 Americans have registered as recreational drone owners, 400,000 drones were sold this holiday season alone. Some of that large gap can be explained by the fact that not every drone weighs enough to trigger the registry. Yet many of the most popular models of quadcopter, like the “DJI Phantom,” and the “Parrot Ar.Drone,” do.

It is reasonable to conclude that a substantial number of new drone owners, whom the FAA has decreed must register, have failed to do so.

If they are also flying their drones, even if only above their own yard, mere feet off the ground, they can be prosecuted. If found guilty, they face absurdly steep penalties that were originally developed to deter drug smugglers and tax evaders who did not register full-blown aircraft.

Even the FAA’s own exploratory task force, formed to offer recommendations to guide the establishment of a registry, strongly encouraged the FAA to develop more appropriate and proportionate penalties, given that “consumers and juveniles may now find themselves inadvertently in violation of this new system.”

The FAA chose to disregard that advice, instead adopting a “trust us, we won’t arrest you,” attitude. The purpose of stiff criminal sanctions is to compel compliance, not to actually land someone in prison, officials insist. Bureaucratic benevolence is little comfort, however, in an age of overcriminalization.

In exchange for this exposure to criminal liability, the FAA offers a burdensome drone owners’ registry that will not deter bad actors from flying drones into restricted airspace, or into the flight paths of aircraft, or above natural disaster sites.

As I have pointed out previously, no ill-intentioned pilot will comply because to do so is effectively to sign his own arrest warrant. Additionally, even in situations like near-collisions between manned aircraft and drones, a registry and marking requirement does very little to help law enforcement authorities track down a suspect.

It is no wonder, then, that the FAA’s regulatory rush job is winning few plaudits. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, a model aircraft hobbyists’ group, has encouraged its members to delay registering until Feb. 19, the last date to register for those who owned qualifying drones before the FAA’s new rule goes into effect. In a publication to its members, the AMA denounced the regulatory push as “unnecessary and burdensome.”

The registry rule has also come under assault in federal court, where a Maryland drone owner is challenging the rule as a direct violation of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Section 336 of that law specifically bars the FAA from adopting new rules and regulations governing recreational drone use.

Congress, it seems, would prefer drone matters be resolved at the local and state level. The FAA, meanwhile, contends its new regulatory action is not, in fact, a new regulatory action – and therefore does not run afoul of the legislative ban. When it comes to absurdity, the sky’s the limit at the FAA.

The drone owners’ registry is regulatory policymaking at its worst.

Clearly, aviation officials have determined that their drone owners’ registry will continue regardless of the prohibitions of Congress, or the cost or risk to the public. And with more than a million drones expected to be sold this year that meet the registration threshold, that risk will only grow. Each sale will potentially expose another American to unnecessary and outrageous criminal liability, while doing nothing to accomplish the stated objectives of the registry.

The drone owners’ registry is regulatory policymaking at its worst.

The FAA rushed it into place, cutting the public out of the process and disregarding the reasonable recommendations of even its own drone task force. Hopefully this juggernaut will not roll over too many Americans in the process.