Friday, May 19, 2017

Federal Aviation Administration Rules on Recreational Drone Registry Struck Down: Appeals court finds agency lacked authority to require registration

The Wall Street Journal 
By Jacob Gershman
May 19, 2017 3:47 p.m. ET


A federal appeals court in Washington on Friday struck down a Federal Aviation Administration rule requiring recreational drone owners to register their devices with the government.

The rule, rolled out in late 2015, instructed owners of virtually all consumer drones—other than those weighing about half a pound or less—to register for a unique identification number to affix to their aircraft before flying them.

Federal officials at the time said the registry was a safety measure to help protect the national airspace amid a proliferation of smaller and cheaper consumer drones. Some drone owners objected to the new rules, seeing it as a needless intrusion into a harmless hobby.

On Friday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FAA lacked the authority to require the registration, saying that the rule ran afoul of a 2012 law passed by Congress forbidding the FAA from promulgating rules over model aircraft.

“The Registration Rule is a rule regarding model aircraft,” stated the 3-0 opinion written by Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh. “Therefore, the Registration Rule is unlawful to the extent that it applies to model aircraft.”

The decision was a blow to aviation regulators who viewed the registry as part of an agenda that has pushed for more rigorous oversight of unmanned aircraft.

“Requiring the agency to exempt model aircraft operators from registration requirements would create a gaping hole in FAA’s enforcement authority and threaten the safety of the national airspace system,” the FAA warned in court papers.

The legal challenge to the registry was brought by a 56-year-old drone flier and lawyer from Silver Spring, Md., who accused the FAA of an unlawful overreach.

“The registration regulation was clearly illegal,” said John A. Taylor, the petitioner who acted as his own attorney in the case, on Friday. “I’m pleased to see the court rule accordingly.”

Violation of the registry rule carried significant civil and criminal penalties: up to a $250,000 fine and a prison sentence of three years. FAA officials said it was hardly enforced.

The FAA said in court papers that its drone rule didn’t conflict with what lawmakers drafted in the 2012 law, arguing that it wasn’t creating a new regulatory regime but exercising its existing authority under older laws requiring the registration of aircraft.

An FAA spokesman said the agency is reviewing its legal options, one of which could be to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The FAA put registration and operational regulations in place to ensure that drones are operated in a way that is safe and does not pose security and privacy threats,” an FAA spokesman said Friday.

Mr. Taylor, an insurance company lobbyist and former litigator, said he has built and flown model airplanes for decades. More recently, the hobby has shifted to “quadcopter” drones.

He said he had assumed someone would challenge the drone registry in court. When no lawsuit emerged, he decided to file suit himself.

Mr. Taylor said his objections went beyond the question of legality. “If I want to take my teacup-sized drone in my backyard and fly it below the tree line, what business is that of the federal government?” he said.

—Andy Pasztor contributed to this article.

Original article can be found here:  https://www.wsj.com

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