This would be the first judicial decision regarding FAA authority to regulate small hobby drones.
With little media attention, a hard fought battle is being waged in a federal district court in New Haven, Connecticut over whether small drones – so-called model aircraft – are indeed aircraft subject to FAA jurisdiction.
I spoke recently to the pro bono attorney designated by the judge to represent the Haughwouts, Mario Cerame of the Randazza Legal Group. Mr. Cerame told me that at the heart of his challenge to FAA authority is the FAA’s definition of “aircraft” which he contends “is crazy” and would cover any contrivance that flies, including “paper airplanes, bullets and flags.”
At a hearing in March, Judge Jeffrey Meyer ordered the parties to further support their arguments regarding FAA authority over small drones.
Oral argument is set for July 6 at 10 am at the federal courthouse in New Haven. Mr. Cerame admits that for his clients to win, the Judge would have to determine that the FAA’s position was “obviously wrong.” The Assistant United States Attorney handling the matter for the FAA was not able to comment because the matter is in litigation.
As usual, John Goglia is right on top of it. Here is the distinction that many will miss:
The Pirker case was a decision by the NTSB, an administrative agency which reviews FAA enforcement cases against pilots and other aviation operators. The NTSB determined that a drone was an aircraft and subject to the FAA’s prohibition on careless or reckless operation. But that NTSB decision is not the final word on whether small drones are indeed aircraft. And it is not binding on the federal court that is reviewing a challenge to FAA administrative subpoenas.
Jason Koebler from Motherboard wrote a very thoughtful article which puts some context on the case:
The Haughhwouts refused to comply with a Federal Aviation Administration subpoena demanding photographs and video, receipts for the flamethrower, YouTube audience, advertising, and monetization information, and other evidence that could be used against the family in court should the FAA decide that a crime was committed.
“Essentially, the Haughwouts are not going to give the FAA any evidence and they feel the FAA does not have sufficient evidence to proceed with what they have,” an FAA memorandum about the case stated. “Mr. Haughwout stated he is going to use the maximum extent of the law to protect his son.”
Whether or not drones are “aircraft” is a legal distinction that is undecided, hugely important, and needlessly complicated….
This case and the legal distinction of whether a drone is an aircraft or not could set an early precedent as to the extent of the FAA’s legal authority to discipline drone pilots.
Cerame says he’s aware that the Haughwouts are unlikely heroes for a drone community that thoroughly disowned his clients when the original videos were posted.
Drone hobbyists “may not like what happened in the court of public opinion and how [the Haughwouts] presented the drone hobby,” Cerame told me, “but when it comes to the legal question, the drone community is very supportive of the idea that the FAA is overreaching.”
Say what you will, heroes come from the unlikeliest of places.
Young Austin Haughwout has made quite a name for himself for his “engineering breakthroughs” which resulted in his being expelled from Central Connecticut State University and also being arrested for assaulting a police officer. But don’t worry about him, he is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame and even has his own page
UPDATE 7/18/16 courtesy of Peter Sachs who tweeted:
District Court Judge Meyer orders Haughwouts to comply w/FAA administrative subpoena. Full-text of decision: https://app.box.com/s/qmv26y2knhw3thp5k8w8llkc6p9dlb1q …
RULING GRANTING PETITIONFOR ENFORCEMENT OF ADMINISTRATIVE SUBPOENAS
This case concerns the investigatory authority of the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) with respect to small unmanned flying devices (or “drones”) that are owned by private citizens. The Administrator of the FAA seeks enforcement of subpoenas served against respondents Austin and Bret Haughwout. The subpoenas are designed to investigate the apparent use of weaponized drones as shown in well-publicized YouTube videos. Because I conclude that the FAA has a legitimate purpose for its subpoenas and that the subpoenas are otherwise appropriate in scope, I will grant the petition.