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November 11, 2009

AOPA wins suit against New York background check law

A federal judge has sent a strong message that states cannot preempt the federal government by forcing flight school students to undergo criminal background checks.

U.S. District Judge for the state of New York Gary L. Sharpe ruled on August 2 in favor of AOPA's motion for summary judgment. Last year AOPA and seven New York flight schools filed suit against the ill-conceived state law.

"This law didn't do anything to enhance security for New Yorkers," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "It was unnecessary and discriminatory, and it violated the U.S. Constitution."

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the federal agency charged with aviation security, and the FAA already have aggressive and comprehensive security programs that include identity verification for all pilots as well as background checks for non-U.S. citizens. In addition, flight schools and flight instructors are required to receive annual training on reporting suspicious activities to the TSA or local law enforcement.

AOPA had tried to work with the New York legislature on the issue and later gave the governor compelling reasons to veto the bill, yet it still moved forward. AOPA fought and won a similar battle in Michigan and prevented a bill in the California legislature from becoming law.

The issue was not about security, but rather what part of government has the authority and responsibility for aviation security.

The lawsuit stated that Congress has enacted legislation to create "a single, uniform system of regulation for the safety and security of aviation, to be maintained by the federal government."

And if states were permitted to enact their own aviation security laws, it would create a patchwork of dissimilar and conflicting laws across the nation, "frustrating the purpose of a uniform and consistent system of safety regulation," the suit said.

The New York law had required the state to run a criminal background check on any flight school applicant through the FBI. But the FBI wouldn't allow New York to access its criminal database when the information was to be provided to a third party.

So the state was only able to examine criminal histories contained within its own records. Any criminal history in another state wouldn't have been revealed by the New York check.

Although the law was short-lived, it had already created a negative impact on flight school businesses, with many reporting a downturn in student starts.

August 2, 2007