Massachusetts: Federal Court Grounds Municipal Drone Law

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A federal court has grounded four parts of a 2016 drone ordinance in a Massachusetts town after a pitched legal battle that may set precedence in future UAV case law.

Local drone operator Michael Singer filed the lawsuit after the town of Newton passed an ordinance regulating drone use in December.

Among other things, the new law required drone owners to register with the town, to not fly beyond visual line of sight or interfere with emergency aircraft. In addition, the ordinance prohibited drone pilots from flying over houses at an altitude lower than 400 feet without the homeowner’s permission and banned flights over municipal property and sporting events without permission from the city.

On the matter of registration, Massachusetts Federal District Judge William G. Young ruled that FAA regulations preempted municipal registration laws, striking it down. The court also voided the other three parts for the same reasons – in short, a town is not allowed to stand in for the FAA when it comes to regulating airspace. If there is a conflict between local and federal law, federal law wins under the legal concept of conflict preemption.

“[A portion of the ordinance] thwarts not only the FAA’s objectives, but also those of Congress for the FAA to integrate drones into the national airspace,” the ruling stated. “The Ordinance seeks to regulate the method of operating of drones, necessarily implicating the safe operation of aircraft. Courts have recognized that aviation safety is an area of exclusive federal regulation.”

Aviation law experts hailed the decision although some advocated measured optimism.

“Other courts will likely follow the same rationale and invalidate state and local drone laws on the grounds they are conflict preempted only,” aviation attorney Jonathan Rupprecht said in a blog post. He added that the decision nevertheless failed to address some serious issues for drone pilots.

“With conflict preemption, the City of Newton can just go back and rework the law and see if Singer files suit again or see if they get struck down again. It would have been more beneficial for the drone industry to have a ruling on whether the airspace was expressly preempted or the field of aviation is field preempted. Instead, the court ruled very narrowly to resolve the case, but left many issues on the table.”

Attorney Patrick Byrnes, a partner in Locke Lord’s Litigation Department and a member of the Aviation and Defense Group tells DroneLife the decision could have “far-reaching ramifications.”

“I expect we will see additional litigation popping up in other jurisdictions asserting challenges to regulations similar to those found by the District Court to be preempted. This may also place additional pressure on Congress to enact legislation expressly affording state and local governments a say in regulating UAS operations.”

“If Newton doesn’t appeal, redrafting this legislation to avoid another conflict with FAA regulations might be a challenge given the Court’s analysis,” fellow Locke Lord attorney Matthew Kalas said. “This case demonstrates the fascinating, and arguably still unresolved, intersection of the federal law empowering the FAA to regulate the safe operation of aircraft (including drones) in the National Air Space and the concomitant privacy rights of private landowners within the traditional realm of state lawmaking.”



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