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Is it Unlawful to Operate a Drone While Intoxicated?

Jan 22nd, 2018 OWI Is it Unlawful to Operate a Drone While Intoxicated?

Yes, it may be unlawful to operate a drone while intoxicated at the federal level, and may soon be unlawful at the state level as well. The punishment varies depending on the specific law violated.

As drones become more common and more popular, some states are looking at drafting laws that will impose criminal consequences, including the possibility of jail, for operating a drone while intoxicated.   An example of this is the New Jersey law that was introduced in June 2017, and that passed both houses on January 10, 2018.  The law is expected to be signed into law. The punishment for a violation of the New Jersey statute is up to six months in prison or a $1,000 fine.

The text of the New Jersey law first sets forth the definition of the word ‘Operate,” as meaning “to fly, control, direct, or program the flight of an unmanned aircraft system.”  Relative to alcohol, the statute makes droning while intoxicated unlawful, and indicates specifically:

A person commits a disorderly persons offense if he operates an unmanned aircraft system while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, a narcotic, hallucinogenic, or habit-producing drug or with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more by weight of alcohol in the defendant’s blood.

The law also proscribes many other types of unlawful operation of drones that do not involve intoxicated operation, such as operation endangering a correctional facility or interfering with first responders such as police and firefighters, or using drones to hunt wildlife or endanger people or property.

At the federal level, things are a bit more complicated, but it appears that CFR § 91.17 covers the commercial operation of drones, and provides:

Alcohol or drugs

  1. No person may act or attempt to act as a crewmember of a civil aircraft –
  2. Within 8 hours after the consumption of any alcoholic beverage;
  3. While under the influence of alcohol;
  4. While using any drug that affects the person’s faculties in any way contrary to safety; or
  5. While having an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater in a blood or breath specimen. Alcohol concentration means grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood or grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.

According to aviation attorney Jonathan Rupprecht, for non-commercial drone operators, the law does not specifically prohibit drinking in droning.  However, like the proposed New Jersey Law, CRF § 101.43 does indicate that “no person may operate model aircraft so as to endanger the safety of the national airspace system.”  It is arguably a violation of this law to operate a drone while intoxicated.

At some point, Michigan’s lawmakers are likely to address the issue of intoxicated droning.  Based on the way these matters are generally addressed, it seems likely that in Michigan the punishment for drunk droning will be greater than it is New Jersey.