DUI for Pilots

by Aaron Delgado
October 15th, 2018

If you are arrested for driving under the influence (DUI), in addition to all of the consequences stemming directly from the arrest, there are various collateral consequences you may have to worry about. Many individuals may face consequences in their career, especially those holding professional licenses. Among professional licensees, pilots in particular face great scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when accused of alcohol- or drug-related crimes. Although this article outlines the general contours of the legal consequences of a DUI arrest for pilots, it is purely educational and is by no means a substitute for individualized counsel from an experienced defense attorney.

Notification Letter of “Motor Vehicle Action”

There are three ways in which a DUI arrest can impact your license status as a pilot. The first comes from your reporting obligations to the FAA: You are required to provide a written report (Notification Letter) to the FAA within 60 days of any “motor vehicle action.” A “motor vehicle action” can be:

  • A conviction for violating any statute relating to operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • The cancellation, suspension, or revocation of a license to operate a motor vehicle for a cause related to the operation of a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • The denial of an application for a license to operate a motor vehicle for a cause related to the operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol

It should be noted that a separate report is required for each “motor vehicle action.” This means that if your license is suspended as a result of refusing to take a breathalyzer and you are subsequently convicted of DUI, two separate notification letters are required. This report must be made to the FAA’s Civil Action Security Division in Oklahoma City, not your local Flight Standards District Office or Certified Flight Instructor. Failure to report a motor vehicle action within 60 days is grounds for the suspension or revocation of your license.

Medical Certificate Eligibility

The second way a DUI arrest can impact your license status as a pilot is in the eligibility for a Medical Certificate. A Medical Certificate can be denied, suspended, or revoked if you enter an incorrect statement on an application for a Medical Certificate or application for renewal of a Medical Certificate, even if you did not intentionally give a false answer. It is thus crucial to know these obligations well to provide not only correct information but all the information required.

It is important to note that this requirement is entirely separate from the notification letter requirement; even if you are going to be applying for renewal of your Medical Certificate within 60 days of the “motor vehicle action,” you still must report it to the FAA in a notification letter.

Under Item 18 in the application for the Medical Certificate, you must list any and all of the following:

  • Any arrests or convictions involving driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Any arrests, convictions, or administrative actions involving an offense which resulted in the denial, suspension, cancellation, or revocation of driving privileges, or which resulted in attendance at an educational or rehabilitative program.

Even if you do not have an examination for renewal of your Medical Certificate coming up, when you provide the notification letter to the FAA, this information will be reported to the Aerospace Medical Certification Division to reexamine your qualifications and determine whether you meet the medical standards.

The Medical Certificate is rarely cancelled immediately, but if no reply is received within 60 days of your receipt of a response letter from the FAA, the Division will refer the case for legal enforcement action or revoke your Medical Certificate. It is your obligation to provide the information necessary for the Division to make its determination. If you refused the BAC test or your BAC was .15 or above, this required information includes copies of a current substance abuse evaluation. If your BAC was .20 or greater, you must also submit copies of a current evaluation from a psychiatrist familiar with aviation standards.

It should be noted that all expenses you incur in the process of establishing your eligibility for Medical Certification are your responsibility and will not be reimbursed by the FAA.

In addition to being disciplined for failing to report the DUI or license suspension, a pilot may be disciplined for the DUI itself. Once the DUI is reported, the examiner for the Airman Medical Certification Division will inquire into your history with alcohol and the circumstances of the incident in reexamining your qualifications to receive the Medical Certificate. Moreover, regardless of your fitness for Medical Certification as determined by the examiner, the FAA may still take disciplinary action. The FAA can determine that safety concerns require the revocation of your pilot and Medical Certificates, and can even find that an emergency requiring immediate action exists.

Protect Yourself and Your Pilot’s License

This broad range of potential outcomes, with vast discretion vested in the FAA, underscores the importance of hiring an experienced attorney to assist you throughout the process. An attorney can help you in various procedural matters, such as seeking review of the FAA’s determination that an emergency exists. Moreover, since the FAA does have such broad discretion, the attorney can help you take proactive measures such as obtaining a substance abuse evaluation that may cause the FAA to look more favorably at your case.

It is also important to obtain the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney in fighting the underlying DUI itself, as well as any administrative actions that accompany it. Although you will likely still have to deal with the FAA, having a successful or favorable outcome in the underlying criminal or administrative matters can only help when the FAA reviews your case.

This article provides an overview of the process but is no substitute for the advice of an experienced DUI attorney, and you should not act on such general information without counsel. If you or a loved one are a pilot licensed with the FAA who has recently been arrest for driving under the influence, do not hesitate to contact our firm of experienced criminal defense attorneys. We will help you attain the best possible outcome of your case and help protect your or your loved one’s career.

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