An Indiana man was recently arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. It was later discovered that he was on his way to the Indianapolis airport. The man, identified as Robert Harris III, is a commercial pilot.
According to police, Harris’ eyes were bloodshot, his speech was slurred, and he had trouble with coordination. In fact, according to court documents, field sobriety tests could not be completed because Harris almost fell over while trying to walk. It was later determined that his blood alcohol content was 0.29 percent.
It is unclear if Harris was scheduled to fly that evening and the airline for which Harris was employed refused to comment on the matter.
While federal regulations require that pilots follow an 8-hour “bottle to throttle” rule, some airlines require a 12-hour period between a pilot’s last drink and flight. Also, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, a pilot must report an alcohol-related conviction, suspension, revocation, and/or failed breath test within 60 days.
Since federal aviation regulations do not require a person to hold a driver’s license to fly a plane, the arrest and a subsequent conviction for driving under the influence does not necessarily preclude piloting aircraft following the arrest and/or conviction.
“The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) does not hesitate to act aggressively when pilots violate the alcohol and drug provisions of the Federal Aviation Regulations,” said FAA spokesperson Elizabeth Cory. “Airlines are required to have random testing programs in place.”
“The FAA evaluates these cases on an individual basis, which could affect the pilot’s certificate eligibility,” said Cory.
Not surprisingly, this did not settle well with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
“I would have assumed the FAA would have similar sanctions to the state of Indiana and withholding their license to operate a motor vehicle whether that’s a plane or car,” said MADD spokesperson Lael Hill. “It’s a little bit concerning knowing someone accused of a crime and is allegedly drinking and driving and could have their driver’s license taken away and not their pilot’s license or certificate.”
Hypothetically, had Harris had been on his way to the airport to fly, what would have happened had he flown an airplane under the influence?
First off, the California Vehicle Code does not apply to aircraft. Rather, crewmembers of civil aircrafts, including pilots, are governed by the FAA. Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations section 91.17 states that, “no person may act or attempt to act as a crewmember of a civil aircraft within 8 hours after drinking alcohol, while under the influence of alcohol, while using any drug that affects the person’s faculties in any way contrary to safety, or while having an alcohol concentration [BAC] of 0.04 or greater in a blood or breath specimen.”
Furthermore, the FAA requires random alcohol screenings of pilots and are subject to an implied consent law similar to California’s DUI implied consent law.
Similarly, California Public Utility Code section 21407 reads, “It is unlawful for any person to operate an aircraft in the air, or on the ground or water in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another. In any proceeding charging operation of aircraft in violation of this section, the court in determining whether the operation was careless or reckless shall consider the standards for safe operation of aircraft prescribed by federal statutes or regulations governing aeronautics.”
California penalties for a first time FUI include a county jail sentence of 30 days to six months, and/or a fine of $250 to $1,000. Federal penalties, on the other hand, are far more severe and can include up to 15 years in federal prison and up to $250,000.