A federal court upheld the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) subpoenas of a 19-year-old Connecticut drone operator in relation to YouTube videos showing two drones (also known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS) modified to carry a flamethrower and a handgun. This decision further affirms the FAA’s broad enforcement authority over UAS, but it also highlights the common legal confusion over the precise boundaries of FAA regulation.
After two videos (linked here and here) depicting “weaponized” UAS garnered significant attention on YouTube, the FAA began an investigation into their ownership and development. As part of that investigation, the FAA issued administrative subpoenas to Austin Haughwout and his father Bret Haughwout, asking for depositions, records, video, photographs, and receipts related to the two UAS. The Haughwouts refused to comply with the subpoenas and instead challenged the FAA’s authority to enforce the subpoenas in federal court.
The judge determined that the subpoenas were lawful and ordered the Haughwouts to comply. Pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 46101(a)(2), the judge stated that Congress authorized the FAA to conduct investigations on its own initiative if a “reasonable ground appears” to either: (1) believe that a person is violating the Federal Aviation Act or FAA’s regulations or (2) that “any question that may arise” under the Act or the FAA’s regulations. Additionally, the judge affirmed, consistent with appellate court precedent, that the FAA’s broad authority to investigate is not subject to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of probable cause and may be exercised merely on the suspicion that the law is being violated.
In this instance, the judge determined that “the weaponized devices shown on the YouTube videos at least give rise to questions about possible danger to life or property” which is enough for the FAA to investigate based on 14 C.F.R. § 91.13, a federal regulation prohibiting careless and reckless operation of aircraft—including UAS.
Additionally, the judge rejected the Haughwouts’ claim that the statutory definition of “aircraft” was too vague and therefore could not be the basis for the FAA’s actions. Instead, the court quoted and reaffirmed the groundbreaking 2014 case Huerta v. Pirker, which held that the term aircraft encompasses UAS owned for personal use.
While the judge upheld the FAA’s broad investigative authority, he also left open the question of the scope of FAA regulation and its position that it has “regulatory sovereignty over every cubic inch of outdoor air in the United States,” noting that these questions may be raised separately in a future venue.