While charges for flying while intoxicated are not as common as those of driving while intoxicated, the charges are as severe.
Operating an aircraft while intoxicated violates both federal and state laws; therefore, you might face federal and state criminal charges. Your employer could also take disciplinary action against you for breaking your employer's policy against drunk flying.
Therefore, whenever you are charged with flying while intoxicated, you must hire a defense attorney to work on your case. A Fort Worth DWI Defense Attorney will present the best defenses based on the circumstances of the offense. With such defense, you could avoid a criminal conviction, or get a lesser sentence and possibly protect your job.
Overview of Flying While Intoxicated
Alcohol is a common pastime for most Americans. You would not give much thought to a glass or two of wine at the lounge as you await your flight. However, if you are a pilot, every glass of alcohol you drink before a trip has the potential of costing hundreds of lives and your career.
Flying is an intensive task that requires attention and mental clarity. Therefore, you must be well-rested and sober before you start flying. Ideally, pilots should not consume any alcohol before operating an aircraft, and if they do, it should not be enough to affect normal functioning.
Alcohol is a sedative as it slows down the activities of the brain. When you consume alcohol before operating an aircraft, you have less attention to details and have a slower response time to hazards. You are also more likely to make mistakes when flying while intoxicated, risking the lives of the passengers in the aircraft.
The mistakes occur as alcohol affects your brain, inner ear, and your eyes. These are three critical parts, which a pilot relies on for a safe flight.
The effects of alcohol on the brain lead to reduced judgment, reasoning, response time, and memory. Alcohol, coupled with the impact of altitude, will reduce your brain's ability to use oxygen, thus reducing your efficiency.
Your eye muscles are also affected, making it hard to focus while flying. The effects on your ears will reduce the hearing perception and problems with balance. When alcohol compromises these three parts, then the lives of those in the plane are at risk as well.
The use of drugs and alcohol by pilots raises concerns for the safe operation of an aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the aviation industry creating laws and policies to enhance air safety. Some of these regulations cover flying while intoxicated.
Pilots must adhere to the regulations stipulated under the Federal Aviation Regulations 91.17, which prohibit operating an aircraft:
- Within 8 hours of consuming alcohol
- While under the influence of alcohol
- While under the influence of a drug or substance that affects safety
- With a BAC of .04% or higher
The eight-hour limit on drinking alcohol before a flight does not mean that the effects of alcohol might have worn out, or that your BAC level will be below the legal limit. However, it is a safe range for most people, which allows most of the effects of alcohol to wear off. The best approach would be staying alcohol-free 24 hours before a flight.
Most airlines screen their pilots before and after a flight. They might also request random samples, which you must submit. Pilots operate under the implied consent law. This means that you have “consented” to providing random test samples before or after a flight. Failure to submit the test will lead to an automatic suspension of your license.
Airlines also have regulations and policies that prohibit the use of alcohol by pilots before or during a flight. These regulations vary depending on the airline, but they match those of the FAA or are stricter.
Airlines do not have sobriety checkpoints on air. Instead, they rely on observations and screenings of the pilots before and after a stop. For example, if the crew notices you have an alcoholic breath, they might report you before the flight begins. You must then provide a sample to test your alcohol level.
You could also be arrested for intoxicated flying if, mid-flight, the other crew members notice you are intoxicated. This could be due to your behavior, poor coordination, and alcoholic breath. You might be ordered to land at the nearest airport or be required to return to the airport in case you are close by. Once you land, you will submit a test sample, and if it is above the legal limit, you will be arrested for flying while intoxicated.
Flying a private plane (even if you are the only passenger) does not exclude you from the FAA regulations on avoiding alcohol before a flight. You are also subject to local state laws and are at risk of losing your pilot’s license if you are arrested or convicted for driving while intoxicated.
The FAA has additional requirements for mandating pilots to report other alcohol or drug-related convictions. Some of the convictions you must report include:
- Boating while intoxicated
- Driving while intoxicated
- Operating or assembling an amusement ride while intoxicated
Failure to report the conviction or administrative action against your driver’s license results in additional penalties. You must also report within the specified timeline for each offense and action against your privileges. More than two driver’s license suspensions in three years will trigger a revocation or rejection of an application for a pilot’s license.
The best way to avoid DWI or FWI charges is not to drink in the first place. However, if you are in custody for either offense, you will need a lawyer to defend you.
Legal Definition of Flying While Intoxicated
The Texas Penal code 49 describes alcohol-related offenses, including flying while intoxicated as an offense against public health, safety, and morals.
The elements of an offense form the legal definition of the crime. The prosecution must prove that these elements exist beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction.
Flying while intoxicated consists of several elements including:
- You operated an aircraft
- You were intoxicated while operating the aircraft
- You had a BAC of at least .04%
An aircraft under the law refers to commercial or private planes or helicopters. The term does not include parachutes or devices that are used primarily for safety.
If you are intoxicated, you lack the normal use of your mental or physical faculties due to alcohol or a controlled substance in your body. Normal use of your physical and mental capacities would mean what a sober person would do in circumstances similar to yours.
For instance, slurred speech due to alcohol, or staggering are effects that inhibit the normal functioning of your body.
The prosecution will assume you are intoxicated if you have a BAC of .04%, which is the per se limit. Even if you had a BAC lower than the legal limit, the prosecution could justify the element of intoxication by examining your actions.
Previous statistics also show that pilots with a BAC of .02% have a significant loss of their mental and physical faculties, which affects the effective operation of the aircraft. The prosecution can use such statistics and studies, including calling an expert witness to testify about the effect of alcohol on your efficiency as a pilot.
Courts in Texas require that the prosecution prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very high standard meant at ensuring that the prosecution does not wrongfully prosecute you. The high standard also gives you room to fight your charges by showing that the evidence available does not prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.
A lot is at stake if you are convicted of flying while intoxicated. You could lose your career or face disciplinary action, including suspension of your license. Avoiding drunk flying is the best defense, but you can still fight these charges with the help of a DWI attorney if you are charged.
You must start preparing the defense as soon as you are arrested. Note that you will need the services of a DWI attorney even if you are a pilot charged with driving while intoxicated. This is because; you must report such convictions to the FAA and your employer, who might take action against your pilot's license.
The defenses you choose will depend on the circumstances of your case, including when the BAC test was taken, and the last time you had a drink.
One of the defenses you can use is that the instruments used to collect your BAC sample were inaccurate. BAC test equipment is prone to errors, which can result in a high BAC level. Such errors include poor calibration and mishandling by the officer.
If your lawyer can prove that the test equipment had errors, he or she can convince the prosecution to reduce or drop the charges against you. You can also avoid additional consequences, such as the loss of your pilot's license.
Another possible defense is that you have a medical condition that led to high BAC levels. GERD and being on a keto diet are some of the non-alcohol reasons you could have a high BAC reading.
These conditions can trigger the release of chemicals similar to alcohol hence a high BAC level. Also, in line with this defense, is that you could have used a product such as a mouthwash that increases the BAC reading. The two defenses are useful where the prosecution is relying on the results of a breath test. A blood test would be more accurate hence unlikely to capture a nonexistent concentration of alcohol.
Sometimes, you could have been arrested for flying while intoxicated due to the signs of intoxication you displayed. These might include bloodshot eyes or slurred speech. However, if these can be explained by other causes such as allergies, then you can use the defense to fight the charges.
The defense that you might have non FWI symptoms that indicate intoxication can be active if you have a low BAC level.
Depending on the time the officer took a blood test, you could argue that you took alcohol in between, which contributed to your BAC reading. For example, a test that occurred four hours after a flight would be unreliable since you could have taken a drink in the four-hour window.
Another defense would be that you were not operating an aircraft. Texas law does not have a precise definition of what operating means. Therefore, it allows the prosecution to assert that you were operating the aircraft by merely being in the cockpit. It can, therefore, be a complicated defense to use, but in the right circumstances, it can save you from jail or losing your professional license.
Most criminal cases settle after a plea bargain. You plead guilty to certain reduced charges or a lesser sentence. However, before you agree to a plea deal, you must evaluate the circumstances of the case, the possibility of acquittal, and the consequences of the obligations under the plea deal.
Your defense attorney cannot force you to settle for a plea deal; therefore, choose the option that best meets your needs.
Penalties and Consequences of Flying While Intoxicated
You can be convicted for flying while intoxicated under federal or state laws. If you are prosecuted under the Texas penal code 49.05(b), you face penalties as follows:
- For a first offense, you will be convicted of a class B misdemeanor punishable by a minimum of 72 hours and a maximum of 180 days in jail and up to $2000 in fines
- The second offense is also a misdemeanor punishable by a minimum of thirty days up to twelve months in jail and a fine of up to $4,000
- A third offense attracts an incarceration period of two to ten years and a fine of up to $10,000
The third offense (including one related to driving, boating, or operating an amusement ride while intoxicated) will lead to felony charges.
You are also likely to suffer a license suspension or revocation and higher fines if you refuse to submit a chemical test.
The court could also give you a probation sentence instead of incarceration. You will have to meet several conditions, including attending a drug awareness or rehabilitation program, completing community service, among other requirements.
Aside from the criminal penalties you face for flying while intoxicated, you could face additional penalties depending on the facts of your case.
One of the consequences of an FWI conviction is difficulties in obtaining an aviation medical certificate. An aviation medical certificate allows you to get a pilot's license for commercial or private flying.
You will have to renew the certificate every six or twelve months, depending on your age. The certificate shows that you are healthy enough to fly an aircraft safely. A DWI or an FWI conviction could lead to denial of the aviation medical certificate.
Such a denial is common, especially where you have more than one conviction for operating under the influence. Several convictions for these offenses imply that you have an alcohol problem and are, therefore, a safety risk if you fly an aircraft.
You can avoid this consequence if:
- You had a BAC of less than .15%
- You did not refuse to submit a test sample
- You reported any related offense for operating while intoxicated to the FAA
- You provide proof that you do not have a substance abuse problem within 14 days (you could also present evidence that you have not had a related conviction for several years)
In most cases where you have had a previous operating while intoxicated conviction, refused to submit a test sample, or have other convictions within two years, the FAA will have to review your request for the aviation medical certificate.
You could also face an adverse child custody decision based on your conviction for flying while intoxicated. In addition, if you are convicted for felony FWI, you will lose your right to own a firearm.
Flying while intoxicated in Texas remains on your record forever. Therefore, everyone can view your criminal information and use it to make an adverse decision against you.
The court might also charge you with a related offense of intoxication assault or manslaughter if someone is injured or killed.
You are guilty of intoxication assault if you cause serious bodily injury to another person because you operate an aircraft while intoxicated. Such injuries have the potential of killing or causing permanent disfigurement or loss of function in a body part. Intoxication assault is a serious offense punishable by a prison term of two to ten years and a maximum fine of $10,000.
The penalties will also increase if the injured person was a peace officer conducting his or her duties at the time of the injury. In such a case, the penalties increase to up to twenty years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
If the injured party were a judge or police officer who was working when the incident occurred, you would be charged with a first-degree felony. The penalties will include five to 99 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
Intoxication manslaughter charges arise when a person is killed due to intoxicated piloting. The offense is a second-degree felony in Texas with a prison term of two to twenty years. You will also pay a fine not exceeding $10,000. You might also be charged with separate counts of intoxicated manslaughter for every victim killed in an accident, meaning you will spend a long time in prison
The Human Intervention Motivation Study
The Human Intervention Motivation Study is a program established in the 1970s to deal with alcoholism. Your career could be in jeopardy if you are convicted of flying while intoxicated or have a substance use problem. Losing your license means you cannot practice again or at least for some time. You could also have problems when renewing your pilot’s license.
The program is an intervention initiative geared towards offering you a second chance at flying an aircraft after an FWI. It provides both residential and outpatient programs based on your needs. The standard parameters used in determining the treatment to offer you include:
- The extent of your substance abuse problems (whether chronic or not)
- Any underlying personality disorders or mental health issues that could contribute to the problem
HIMS provides FAA approved treatment and aftercare services, which include a minimum of 28 days in a residential care facility and at least three years of aftercare monitoring. The program might consist of the following:
- Total abstinence from alcohol and controlled substances
- Company and peer sponsorship
- Intensive outpatient treatment for at least three months
- Relapse prevention (aftercare services)
- Monitoring which includes random screening (the goal of monitoring is to ensure pilots do not relapse after the completion of the program and several years later)
The program works within the regulations of the FAA in assessing the presence of a substance use disorder and in treating it.
Once you complete treatment, the FAA still has the discretion to approve your return into the profession. The FAA will conduct an intensive process to evaluate whether you:
- You are regularly participating in treatment
- You continue your contact with sponsors
- You pass random drug and alcohol testing
- You participate in annual health assessments
Participation in the program does not require a conviction; you can take charge by voluntarily enrolling in the program.
Find A Fort Worth FWI Defense Attorney Near Me
Flying while intoxicated charges are rare in Texas; however, when they happen, they have severe criminal and professional consequences. You could lose your license and career, not to mention the fines you pay and the time you spend in jail.
Fighting these charges as soon as they occur is the best approach to ensuring that you can continue working as a pilot. Your defense attorney must have experience working on similar cases (or DWI related cases) to provide you with the expertise you need.
The Fort Worth DWI Defense Attorney has the experience in negotiating with prosecutors as well as handling a successful trial in court. We understand the intoxication laws of Texas and are committed to defending you. Our goal is to ensure that you get the best defense based on the facts of your case. This could lead to a dismissal, restoration of your license, or a lesser sentence. You can reach us at 817-470-2128.