Meet the Man Suing the FAA Over Its Drone Registration Program, Pro Bono

All drones purchased before December 21, 2015, need to registered in an online portal, but one Maryland attorney is challenging the legality of the registry in court. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rolled out its drone registration program, a few aviation attorneys predicted the program will eventually end up in the courts. Less than a month since its launch, the prediction came true, thanks to one Maryland lawyer and drone hobbyist.

John Taylor filed a lawsuit against the FAA on the legality of the registry, arguing the FAA directly violated a key legal clause in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. The case was filed at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Christmas Eve. Taylor, a member of the DC Area Drone User Group, also filed a motion for stay to freeze the registration program that day but was denied by the court.

The program, which can be done online, has received over 181,000 registered drones as of January 6. The deadline for registering all drones purchased before December 21, 2015 is on February 19. Owners of unregistered drones face up to three years in jail or $250,000 in fines.

One attorney skeptical of the legality of the registry told Newsweek he believed that the person or group who would first challenge the FAA would be someone who was subject to the fines or prison times. But instead Taylor is taking on the U.S. government because he believes in the issue, he tells Newsweek.

"Laws should make sense, and it should not be passed by bypassing advisories and forcing rules," Taylor says. "Americans have a right to know where the lines are drawn."

As a drone hobbyist, Taylor says he read about the possible violation by the FAA regarding Section 336 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act in an online forum he frequents. Section 336 prohibits the FAA from creating any new rules and regulations regarding model aircrafts. To Taylor, the FAA's registration program is a newly made and legally overreaching regulation.

The FAA countered by saying the program is a complement to existing regulations on model aircrafts. "This action simply provides a burden-relieving alternative that [drone] owners may use for aircraft registration," explains the FAA in its interim final rules report.

Taylor says he was expecting a lawsuit to drop on the FAA's front doors as soon as the program went live on December 21 but saw no one stepping up to do the grunt work. By the next day, the insurance attorney took it upon himself.

"It's [December] 22 and 3 p.m. rolls around, I'm thinking, Somebody needs to go get a restraining order or something [against the FAA]," Taylor remembers. "I asked my boss for permission to file this lawsuit, and he said sure as long as the company is not tied to it."

On December 23, Taylor went to the Maryland state court but was told to head to Washington instead. After rewriting his lawsuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals overnight, he rushed over to Washington in Christmas Eve morning to beat the rush of court judges and officials going home early for the break. "My goal was to stop the Christmas rush of registration from happening," Taylor says.

Taylor's lone action against the FAA has caught the attention of drone hobbyists in Washington who started a fundraiser to cover his legal costs. Taylor repeatedly clarified that he is doing handling this case pro bono but will consider taking the $3,100 raised so far.

Christopher Vo, the head of the fundraising effort and president of the DC Area Drone User Group, expressed gratitude at Taylor leading the charge. "We were astonished by his work," Vo tells Newsweek. Vo also gave a "50-50 chance" on Taylor winning the case—which may mean shutting the registry down.

At first, Taylor hoped this may spark other drone attorneys from around the United States to action. But now, he is in it to win it. "I think I can put up a decent fight," Taylor says.

The case will now proceed according to the Court of Appeals' schedule, with the next filing deadline for both parties on January 27.