The Michigan Coalition of Drone Operators celebrates their victory outside of the Genesee County courthouse.

On February 10th, the Honorable Judge Joseph Farah handed down a ruling in favor of the Michigan Coalition of Drone Operators (MCDO) after Genesee County, in Flint, tried to establish an ordinance banning drones in their parks. The three-month-long legal battle was ignited after R. Jason Harrison was arrested in December 2018 for flying legally in a park. Harrison’s drone and accessories were confiscated and he was issued a misdemeanor.

Even though the ticket was dropped, Harrison sought the counsel of Dean Greenblatt, an aviation attorney licensed in both Michigan and Florida. Greenblatt had the following to say to DPReview regarding the situation:

‘I understand that this case is the first to attempt enforcement of statewide preemption statutes regarding drones. It is the first legal challenge in Michigan, and presumably the first legal challenge to a preemption statute anywhere in the country.’

What happened to Harrison isn’t unusual for remote pilots operating in a majority of states across the US. 33 of them don’t have the proper State Legislation in place. This allows local governments to establish their own laws regarding drone use. Even though the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has jurisdiction over national airspace, local municipalities in these 33 states can override the government agency by passing rules that regulate the land. Many public parks in California, for example, prohibit people from launching an unmanned aerial vehicle on their premises. This creates hassles for commercial drone operators and confusion for casual users less familiar with local ordinances.

Even though the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has jurisdiction over national airspace, local municipalities in these 33 states can override the government agency by passing rules that regulate the land.

There isn’t a central database or uniform resource dedicated to city-specific rules surrounding drone use. It’s not uncommon for someone to check in with an airspace application like Kittyhawk, AirMap, or UASidekick and believe they’re conducting a legal flight….only to be approached by a local law enforcement officer and told to land immediately. Conducting a Google search with the name of the city you plan to fly in along with the terms “drone” or “UAV” is necessary to find out if they have any UAS laws in place.

Michigan is one of the 17 states with a law that specifically prohibits local governments from creating or enforcing their own drone ordinance. MCL 259.305, which is part of Act 436 passed in 2016, specifically states the following about drone use: ‘[e]xcept as expressly authorized by statute, a political subdivision shall not enact or enforce an ordinance or resolution that regulates the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft or otherwise engage in the regulation of the ownership or operation of unmanned aircraft.’

Genesee County argued that it was exempt from state law and amended its park rules in response to the charges brought against them by the MCDO. Newly-created legislation, to justify their ban of drones, stated the following:

‘Section P910615-Aircraft and Drones

No person shall, upon the property administered by the Commission: Make any ascent or descent, operate or possess any balloon, airplane, parachute, drone, manned or unmanned aircraft on Commission properties or waters, except in designated areas, without first obtaining written permission from the Commission or except as may be necessary in the event of an emergency.’

Judge Joseph Farah signed off on his ruling against the illegal banning of drones in Michigan state parks.

After a series of hearings that took place in October and November, Judge Farah ruled that the state of Michigan’s legislature was clear, binding, and could not be overridden by local lawmakers. Another person who would agree with this sentiment, and even take it a step further, is the FAA’s former Administrator, Daniel Huerta.

In a 2017 keynote address for the InterDrone conference, Huerta stated “legally, the (FAA) has regulatory authority over all U.S. airspace. But successfully blending unmanned aircraft into busy airspace will require state, local, and tribal governments to build upon existing federal efforts to develop and enforce safety rules.”

In a recent development, Genesee County made the decision to override Judge Farah’s ruling and risk being in contempt of court. This stems from their new claim that drone flights within the Class C airspace of KFNT, a ‘no-fly zone’ covering some of the county’s parks, were unlawful. This particular airport participates in the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) making it possible for professionals and hobbyists to fly up to a certain altitude with real-time approval.

Greenblatt had the following to say about Genesee County’s newfound defiance: ‘any attempt to enforce a drone ban or “no-fly zones” as labeled in the “Amendment” will be met with a motion to hold the County in contempt and to enforce the injunction.’ Inaccurate and incorrect interpretations of airspace rules is the exact issue that led the State Legislature to enact the drone preemption statute; that is, to prevent a patchwork of local regulations by non-experts.

The MCDO did not seek out any monetary damages from Genesee County. Instead, the group hopes that Judge Farah’s ruling sets a precedent not only for the state of Michigan, but the other 17 states with similar preemption laws should someone find themselves in legal trouble. The final goal is for the remaining 33 states to take up similar legislation to prevent a patchwork of confusing local ordinances and protect the rights of those looking to legally operate drones in national airspace.

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