FAA Drone Warnings Not Legally Binding

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A federal court of appeals has ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration's informal letters and emails ordering some drone users to stop using the devices are not legally binding. In April, a Texas search-and-rescue group asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to set aside an FAA order to stop using remotely piloted aircraft in the group's searches. On Friday, a three-judge panel dismissed the challenge, but based the dismissal on its ruling that the FAA email at the center of the case was not a formal, legally binding order. According to the Wall Street Journal, the appellate court panel said it lacked authority to review a claim in which "an agency merely expresses its view of what the law requires of a party," the decision read.

The FAA said it was reviewing the decision. In court documents, Justice Department lawyers representing the FAA had argued that the court should dismiss the challenge because the FAA email in question was simply a warning and is thus not subject to judicial review. "The email represents the opinion of a subordinate agency employee regarding the view that the FAA would be likely to take if confronted" with unauthorized use of a drone, the lawyers said in the court documents.

Brendan Schulman, attorney for Texas EquuSearch, the search-and-rescue group, said although the court dismissed his petition, "the result is helpful. It clarifies the organization is not under any FAA directive to not use this technology." Mr. Schulman suggested the order could complicate the FAA's efforts to enforce its drone policy. The agency has used informal letters and emails to tell drone users to halt operations. Mr. Schulman said Friday's order confirms that many of those enforcement attempts are legally just warnings.