Pilot Counsel

FAA's DWI rule: A trap for the unwary

June 1, 1994

A pilot has been found in violation of FAR 61.15 for failing to report to the FAA a motor vehicle conviction, even though he did report it to the FAA. Sounds like double-talk, doesn't it? Well, it is. And if you don't understand that there are two different offices within the FAA where such matters must be reported, you could be caught in the same trap.

In May 1991, a captain with a major airline was stopped and charged with the offense of driving his automobile while impaired by alcohol. Within a few days of the incident, he called the FAA's Los Angeles Flight Standards District Office to ask about the ramifications of a DWI conviction. The FSDO reminded him that he must report such a conviction on his FAA medical application form, but the FSDO didn't tell him of the requirement of FAR 61.15 that he also would have to report it to the FAA's Security Division.

On June 10, 1991, the pilot was convicted of DWI. Eleven days later, he applied for a renewal of his first-class medical certificate. On the application form, in answer to question 21v asking about a record of traffic convictions, he checked "yes," frankly admitting the conviction. He didn't provide any additional information in the "Remarks" section of the application, but he did explain the circumstances of his DWI conviction to the FAA medical examiner. As a matter of routine, the FAA asks its medical examiners to inquire about any notations on the medical form involving convictions. The doctor, apparently satisfied with the explanation, issued him the medical certificate.

On October 1, the FAA's Aeromedical Certificate Division in Oklahoma City, again in routine fashion, asked him for further details about the conviction. The pilot promptly provided them. The certification folks were apparently satisfied, too.

Then the other shoe dropped. The FAA suspended the pilot's airman certificates for 20 days for violating FAR 61.15. That rule requires a pilot to file a written report of any "motor vehicle action" to the FAA's Civil Aviation Security Division in Oklahoma City no later than 60 days after the action. As we will see later, a motor vehicle action is defined to include a DWI conviction.

The captain thought the action of the FAA was unreasonable. After all, the FAA had notice of the matter well within the 60-day reporting period. He certainly had no intention of deceiving the FAA. He appealed the suspension to the National Transportation Board. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge of the NTSB. When the judge heard this evidence, he dismissed the FAA's case, finding that the captain was in "substantial compliance" with the rule. The FAA appealed the judge's decision to the five-member board.

The full board reversed the judge. It reinstated the record of violation, though it did not reinstate the suspension. "As a general rule, airmen are expected and obliged to know the regulations to which they are subject, and ignorance of them is no defense. The reporting regulation was in effect at the time of [the captain's] conviction and its language is absolutely clear."

The reversal by the five-member board is a disappointment. It seems to me that the judge's decision is the fair and just one. The judge (William R. Mullins) was the same judge I reported about last month in the Hoover case, and the board (Vogt, Coughlin, Lauber, Hammerschmidt, and Hall) was the same group that overturned his fair and just decision in that case. The good people at the FAA and NTSB must wince when they learn of such cases.

In any event, this case warns us that FAR 61.15 is a rule that could trap you, and you should know more about it.

The FAA adopted FAR 61.15 in 1990. Under the rule, your pilot certificate "may" (and undoubtedly will) be suspended or revoked if you have two or more alcohol- or drug-related "motor vehicle actions" within a three-year period.

As defined in the rule, motor vehicle actions fall into two broad categories: convictions and driver's license actions. Any state or federal court conviction related to the operation of a motor vehicle while "intoxicated by" or "impaired by" or "while under the influence of" alcohol or a drug is a motor vehicle action. A motor vehicle action also includes any cancellation, suspension, revocation, or denial of a driver's license for any alcohol- or drug-related motor vehicle offense.

The rule also has a self-reporting provision. A pilot must file a written report within 60 days after any such conviction or administrative action to the FAA, Civil Aviation Security Division (AAC-700), Post Office Box 25810, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73125. There is no preprinted official report form. The report must include the pilot's name, address, date of birth, and airman certificate number and the details of the conviction or the driver's license action. A pilot must report each action to the FAA regardless of whether it arises out of the same incident or circumstances previously reported. But if the same incident, or the same factual circumstances, leads to any combination of convictions and driver's license actions, it will count only once toward the two that will lead to certificate action.

The effects of a report, or a failure to report, are serious. If a pilot does report a motor vehicle action, it will automatically trigger a review of the pilot's file to determine if the pilot continues to be eligible for his or her airman certificate (two, and you are out) or medical certificate (a history of alcoholism). If a pilot fails to report even one conviction or administrative action, that is grounds for suspension or revocation of any pilot certificate or rating he or she holds. It is also grounds for denial of an application for a certificate or rating for up to one year after the date of the motor vehicle action.

Don't get trapped.

John S. Yodice