Last week US District Judge William G. Young ruled in favor of Dr. Singer in Singer’s lawsuit against the city of Newton, MA (Newton) challenging portions of the city’s local unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drone) ordinance. With the continued proliferation of state and local drone laws, the case drew a considerable amount of attention, with some even contending that the ruling “establishes a rock solid affirmation that the federal government unequivocally holds jurisdiction over the drone industry.” While the ruling does bode well for proponents of federal preemption in the UAS space and can be interpreted as a solid first step, its impact is limited.

What was at Issue Here?

On December 19, 2016, Newton passed an ordinance regulating UAS operations within the city. The ordinance was designed to allow beneficial uses of drones while protecting the privacy of residents throughout the city, and was intended to be read and interpreted in harmony with all relevant rules and regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Dr. Michael Singer, a Newton resident and certified small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) pilot who owns and operates multiple drones, filed suit against the city challenging four provisions of the ordinance. Dr. Singer claimed that the registration requirements in section (b) and the operation limits of subsections (c)(1)(a), (c)(1)(b), and (c)(1)(e) were both field and conflict preempted by federal law. Judge Young determined that all four provisions were conflict preempted thus striking down those portions of the ordinance.

How Does Preemption Work?

Where state and federal law conflict, federal law prevails and state law is preempted. This principle is rooted in Article VI, section 2 of the Constitution which makes the Constitution and federal laws the supreme law of the land. Chief Justice John Marshall’s statement in McCullough v. Maryland – “States have no power, by taxation or otherwise, to retard, impede, burden, or in any manner control the operations of the Constitutional laws enacted by Congress to carry into execution the powers vested in the Federal Government” – is arguably the root from which 500 appellate decisions have discussed federal preemption.

Preemption can be either express or implied. Preemption is express when Congress has clearly stated in federal law that it intends to supersede state laws, even in the absence of a conflict. Preemption is implied in certain scenarios, such as the two kinds of preemption raised in the Singer case. Field preemption happens when Congress legislates in a way that is so comprehensive they occupy the entire field of an issue. Conflict preemption happens when it is impossible to comply with both state and federal laws, or when the purposes or objectives of federal law would be defeated by state law.

What Are the Future Ramifications?

Singer v. Newton is an important first step on the road to determining where federal authority to regulate drones ends and where state authority begins, but it far from settles the discussion. Judge Young’s ruling did not constitute a wholesale ban on state and local regulation where drones are concerned. On the issue of field preemption, Judge Young determined Singer’s argument that the FAA intended to occupy the whole field was invalid because the FAA explicitly contemplates state or local regulation of pilotless aircraft. Instead, according to Judge Young, whether or not regulations are enforceable depends on conflict preemption. He ruled that states and local governments are free to enact drone regulation so long as the content does not (i) infringe on the federal government’s authority to register drones other than model aircraft, (ii) conflict with FAA-permitted flight, or (iii) restrict flight within the navigable airspace. There is nothing in the ruling preventing state and local governments from enacting more drone regulations and simply steering clear of these specific areas.

Furthermore, the ruling is binding case law only in the jurisdiction covered by the Massachusetts Federal District Court, i.e., in Massachusetts itself. Other courts can choose to use Judge Young’s ruling to inform their decisions on future cases, but it is not required.

Preemption is a hot button issue for the UAS industry for a variety of reasons, one of which is the value it can bring to companies looking to operate commercially across the country. It is simpler for companies like Amazon, for example, to expand commercial drone operations if they only have to comply with the rules set forth by the FAA as opposed to a multitude of ordinances from cities and states across the country. Local and State governments on the other hand want the authority to deal with privacy concerns on their own, as is evidenced by the proliferation of state and local laws regulating drone use. This tug of war virtually guarantees we will be seeing more preemption cases in the UAS world as drones become increasingly more prevalent.

The ruling can be read here.