PDC Update on Singer vs. City of Newton

Analysis below of the impact this recent decision of a federal court in Massachusetts will have on state and local laws and regulations pertaining to drones.

The case, Singer v. City of Newton, involves an ordinance that the City of Newton adopted in December, 2016. The ordinance had several requirements, including that (i) drone owners must register their drones with the city; (ii) drone operators may not operate over public property; (iii) drone operators must not operate at an altitude of less than 400 feet above private property without the permission of the property owner; and, (iv) a drone must not be operated beyond the visual line of sight of the operator. Singer, a medical doctor and a professor at Harvard University, challenged the ordinance under the legal concept of federal preemption, which provides that if there is a conflict between a federal law and a state or local law, the federal law controls. (For a broader discussion of the application of the concept of federal preemption and state/local drone laws, see Federal Preemption of State and Local Regulation of Drones prepared for the Property Drone Consortium in December, 2015.)

The U.S. District Court ruled for Singer in finding that all four requirements of the City of Newton’s ordinance were preempted by federal law. Specifically, the court ruled:

  1. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] has explicitly indicated “its intent to be the exclusive regulatory authority for registration of pilotless aircraft”;
  2. The operating restrictions over both private and public property “thwarts not only the FAA’s objectives, but also those of Congress for the FAA to integrate drones into the national airspace”; and,
  3. The restriction on beyond visual line of sight operations, was purely for safety reasons, and “[c]ourts have recognized that aviation safety is an area of exclusive federal regulation.”

The case is significant because drone operators have been concerned that a growing patchwork of state and local laws will make it difficult to operate nationwide or even to operate across jurisdictions. Moreover, it is the first court decision regarding federal preemption and drone regulations since Part 107 came into effect.  As a result, the decision certainly will be carefully reviewed by judges and lawmakers across the country as other state and local laws are either challenged or being considered.

However, while Singer may be cited as an important precedent in support of federal preemption of state and local laws as they pertain to drones, the court’s decision does have limitations in its impact. First, because the decision only applies to the specific City of Newton ordinance that was challenged and has no direct bearing on other state or laws regulating drone operations, other federal courts are not required to follow this court’s decision. In addition, courts’ analysis of federal preemption are very dependent upon the exact wording and intent of the law being challenged. Therefore, it is difficult to analyze how a decision regarding one law will apply to another with even only slightly different wording.

Moreover, the FAA has published a fact sheet acknowledging that states and localities are within their powers under the U.S. Constitution to regulate some aspects of drone operations.

Kevin D. Pomfret

Williams Mullen

Outside Legal Counsel for Property Drone Consortium

September 28, 2017