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Singer v. City of Newton

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 21, 2017

MICHAEL S. SINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF NEWTON, Defendant.

          FINDINGS OF FACT, RULINGS OF LAW, & ORDER

          WILLIAM G. YOUNG DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         The crux of this dispute is whether portions of a certain ordinance (the “Ordinance”) passed by the City of Newton (“Newton”) on December 19, 2016 are preempted. First Am. Compl. Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, ECF No. 12. Michael S. Singer (“Singer”) challenges portions of the Ordinance which require that all owners of pilotless aircraft (commonly referred to as “drones” or “UAS”) register their pilotless aircraft with Newton, and also prohibit operation of pilotless aircraft out of the operator's line of sight or in certain areas without permit or express permission. Id.; Def. City Newton's Mem. Law Supp. Cross Mot. Summ. J. and Opp'n Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. 2, Newton Ordinances § 20-64, ECF No. 40-3.

         In early March, Newton answered Singer's complaint, Answer Def. City of Newton First Am. Compl., ECF No. 17, and both parties appeared before the Court soon after, when they agreed to cross-file motions for summary judgment and proceed on a case stated basis, [1] Electronic Clerk's Notes, ECF No. 21. Both parties subsequently filed motions for summary judgment, Pl.'s Corrected Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 34; Def. City of Newton's Cross Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 39, and fully briefed the issues, Pl.'s Corrected Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Mem.”), ECF No. 35; Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Resp.”), ECF No. 50; Pl.'s Resp. City's Statement Undisputed Facts (“Pl.'s Resp. Facts”), ECF No. 51; Def. City Newton's Mem. Law Supp. Cross Mot. Summ. J. and Opp'n Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mem.”), ECF No. 40; Def. City of Newton's Statement Undisputed Facts Supp. Cross Mot. Summ. J. and Resps. Pl.'s Statement Undisputed Material Facts Supp. Mot. Summ. J. (“Def.'s Facts”), ECF No. 41; see also Amici Curiae Br. (“Amicus Br.”), ECF No. 57.[2] After oral argument on June 13, 2017, this Court took the matter under advisement. Electronic Clerk's Notes, ECF No. 59.

         II. FINDINGS OF FACT

         Newton is a municipality in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and is organized under a charter pursuant to the Home Rule Amendment of the Massachusetts Constitution. Pl.'s Resp. Facts ¶ 1; Def.'s Facts ¶ 1. Singer resides in Newton. Am. Compl. ¶ 22. He is a Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”)-certified small unmanned aircraft pilot and owns and operates multiple drones in Newton. Id. ¶¶ 22, 25. Singer does not operate or register his drones as a hobbyist. Tr. Case-Stated Hearing (“Tr.”) 20:15-18, ECF No. 60.

         In August 2015, members of Newton's City Council proposed discussing the possibility of regulating drones for the principal purpose of protecting the privacy interests of Newton's residents. Pl.'s Resp. Facts ¶ 3; Def.'s Facts ¶ 3. On March 23, 2016, an initial draft of the Ordinance was presented for discussion. See Def.'s Mem., Ex. 3, Public Safety & Transportation Committee Report dated Mar. 23, 2016 1, ECF No. 40-4. Following further inquiry and amendment, see, e.g., Def.'s Mem., Ex. 7, Public Safety & Transportation Committee Report dated May 5, 2016 1, ECF No. 40-8; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 9, Public Safety & Transportation Committee Report dated Sept. 7, 2016 6-7, ECF No. 40-10, but without FAA approval, Def.'s Mem., Ex. 16, Def. City of Newton's Answers Pl.'s First Set Interrogs. (“Def.'s Answers Interrogs.”) 3, ECF No. 40-17, Newton's City Council approved the final Ordinance on December 19, 2016, Def.'s Mem., Ex. 12, Public Safety & Transportation Committee Report dated Dec. 19, 2016 1, ECF No. 40-13.

         The Ordinance states in part:

Purpose: The use of pilotless aircraft is an increasingly popular pastime as well as learning tool. It is important to allow beneficial uses of these devices while also protecting the privacy of residents throughout the City. In order to prevent nuisances and other disturbances of the enjoyment of both public and private space, regulation of pilotless aircraft is required. The following section is intended to promote the public safety and welfare of the City and its residents. In furtherance of its stated purpose, this section is intended to be read and interpreted in harmony with all relevant rules and regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration, and any other federal, state and local laws and regulations.

Def.'s Mem., Ex. 2, Newton Ordinances § 20-64, ECF No. 40-3. “Pilotless aircraft” is defined as “an unmanned, powered aerial vehicle, weighing less than 55 pounds, that is operated without direct human contact from within or on the aircraft.” Id. § 20-64(a). In section (b), the Ordinance imposes certain registration requirements upon owners of all pilotless aircraft. Id. § 20-64(b). Section (c) sets forth operating prohibitions, including, inter alia, a ban on the use of a pilotless aircraft below an altitude of 400 feet over private property without the express permission of the owner of the private property, id. § 20-64(c)(1)(a), “beyond the visual line of sight of the Operator, ” id. § 20-64(c)(1)(b), “in a manner that interferes with any manned aircraft, ” id. § 20-64(c)(1)(c), over Newton city property without prior permission, id. § 20-64(c)(1)(e), or to conduct surveillance or invade any place where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, id. § 20-64(c)(1)(f)-(g). Violations of the Ordinance are punishable by a $50 fine following a one-time warning. Id. § 20-64(f).

         III. RULINGS OF LAW

         Specifically, Singer challenges four subsections of the Ordinance: the registration requirements of section (b) and the operation limits of subsections (c)(1)(a), (c)(1)(b), and (c)(1)(e). Pl.'s Mem 3-4; Pl.'s Resp. i. Singer argues that the Ordinance is preempted by federal law because it attempts to regulate an almost exclusively federal area of law, Pl.'s Mem. 6-15, in a way that conflicts with Congress's purpose, id. at 14-15. In turn, Newton posits that the Ordinance is not preempted by federal law because it falls within an area of law that the FAA expressly carved out for local governments to regulate, Def.'s Mem. 8-10, and thus can be read in harmony with federal aviation laws and regulations, id. at 10-11.

         A. Preemption Standards

         The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution provides that federal laws are supreme, U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2, thus requiring that federal laws preempt any conflicting state or local regulations, see Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 U.S. 725, 746 (1981) (citing McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 427 (1819)). Under our federalist system, however, a court must be wary of invalidating laws in areas traditionally left to the states unless the court is entirely convinced that Congress intended to override state regulation. See, e.g., Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U.S. 452, 460 (1991) (citing Atascadero State Hosp. v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 243 (1985)). In contrast, if a state government attempts to regulate an area traditionally occupied by the federal government, a court need not seek to avoid preemption. See United States v. Locke, 529 U.S. 89, 108 ...


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