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What Happens When a Pilot Is Charged With DUI?

by | Apr 12, 2024 | DUI | 0 comments

What Happens When a Pilot Is Charged With DUI?

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reports approximately 50,000 driving under the influence arrests per year but notes that enforcement efforts have continued to trend this number down over the past decade. When a pilot is involved with a DUI charge in Pennsylvania, they should consult with a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. This is because they have 60 days from the incident to report it to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Pilot Licensing and Certification in the U.S.

In the U.S., the FAA oversees all pilot licensing, and it licenses pilots under the authority of the Federal Aviator Regulations (FARs). The FAA is a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The PennDOT is a separate entity and specific to Pennsylvania, but it adheres to federal DOT regulations.

There is no direct relationship between a pilot’s license and a driver’s license in the U.S. As a Pennsylvania-based pilot, the FAA oversees your pilot’s license, and PennDOT oversees your driver’s license. In order to maintain an active pilot’s license, you must have medical certification.

Medical Certificate

FARs requires that a pilot be medically and physically fit to withstand the rigors of flying. This is achieved through medical certification of which there are three grades:

  • First class
  • Second class
  • Third class

A third-class certificate is the most basic certification. The FAA requires it for piloting aircraft for personal and recreational purposes. A second-class certificate is necessary if you are employed as a commercial pilot or work freelance. First-class certification is the most demanding. It’s necessary for airline transport pilots that operate cargo planes or passenger planes with more than nine seats.

Medical Recertification Due to a DUI

Under normal circumstances, medical certification is good for a set period of time. This period ranges from 12 to 60 months depending on the pilot’s age and level of certification. When you’re involved in a DUI incident, the FAA may require you to recertify immediately. You have to go through the entire physical and mental examination process but with an additional focus on substance abuse. Substance abuse or dependence is an automatic disqualification. Other automatic disqualifications include:

  • Epilepsy
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • COPD and other respiratory issues
  • Chronic use of certain medications
  • Mental health conditions that impair judgment

This means that the FAA-approved doctor can deny a pilot certification for reasons other than the DUI. Even if the pilot is later proved to be innocent, that would have no bearing on the medical certification.

Reporting a DUI Incident

Licensed pilots must report any involvement in a DUI to the FAA within 60 days of the incident. This includes an arrest, charges or any other involvement. If you’re a passenger in a vehicle and the driver is arrested or charged for a DUI, you need to report it even though you were sober. The FAA requires you to submit certain documentation.

It is a good idea to seek representation from a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney who is familiar with FAA guidelines. Note that failure to report or failure to comply within the context of said guidelines could result in the termination of your pilot’s license. If you comply appropriately and within the required time frame, the FAA will not revoke your pilot’s license directly. It will, however, determine whether you need to go for medical recertification, and if it does, you could lose your license through that process.

DUI Laws in Pennsylvania

General impairment in Pennsylvania is considered a blood alcohol content (BAC) between .08 and .099. High BAC is between .10 and .159. The Highest BAC is .16 and up. The state has a special rule for commercial drivers through which it can hold them to a higher BAC standard if someone is injured. The court may be able to apply this to a person who is a commercial pilot. It is also important to note that while you can refuse a BAC test, the FAA can hold this against you in its decision-making process.

If convicted, penalties for a first offense include:

  • $300 fine
  • Ungraded misdemeanor
  • Probation for up to six months
  • Alcohol highway safety school
  • Treatment if ordered by judge

With prior offenses, the fine jumps to as high as $5,000. PennDOT will suspend your driver’s license for 12 months. When it restores the license, it will require 12 months of an ignition interlock system. These penalties make it much more likely that a FAA-approved examiner will deny your certification or defer to the FAA. Note that if you had High BAC or Highest BAC, you will incur these penalties even if you’ve never been charged with a DUI before.

Adding a DUI Conviction to Your Medical Application

If you are convicted of a DUI in Pennsylvania, you then have 60 days to report it to the main FAA office in Pennsylvania. Generally, the FAA will take no further action against you. Note, however, that a non-reporting violation can result in a suspension or even revocation of your pilot’s license. The reason you have to report is so that the FAA can add the conviction as a permanent item to your medical application. This is now an item that FAA-approved medical examiners will consider during all subsequent medical recertifications. Note that if you are arrested, charged or involved but it never results in a conviction, the FAA will not add this to your permanent record.

Second Conviction

If you have a second DUI conviction within a three-year period, the FAA has additional rights. It can suspend your license or even revoke it outright. In either case, the FAA will determine a period of time in which you cannot fly. When a suspension ends, the FAA will restore your license automatically. When a revocation period ends, you’ll have to reapply for your license and all ratings.

Getting a Pilot’s License After a DUI

If you have had one or more DUIs before getting a pilot’s license, it will be part of your permanent medical application. You may also have to wait if you’re currently in a three-year window with two or more DUI convictions. The medical examiner’s responsibility is to ensure that you don’t have a substance abuse problem. The examiner may defer your application to the FAA for potential rejection if you:

  • Did not submit to a blood-alcohol test at the time of arrest
  • Had a BAC higher than .15
  • You have another criminal conviction within the last two years
  • You have had two or more arrests in the last 10 years
  • You have had three or more arrests in your lifetime

Legal Representation for DUIs in Pennsylvania

Bauer, Scanlon & Wigginton is a law firm with more than 25 years of experience navigating DUI laws. That includes complex cases, such as where the FAA is a factor. If you are a pilot charged with a DUI, we encourage you to meet with a Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney at your earliest convenience. To set that appointment, call our Media office at 610-590-5092, or contact us online.