A driving while impaired charge is a traumatic experience for anyone, affecting a person's ability to drive, criminal record, insurance, and career prospects. For most first-time DWI charges, however, jail time is not likely in North Carolina state courts, unless the facts of the case are egregious or unless someone was seriously injured or killed.
That said, for pilots – whether private, general aviation pilots, or commercial or air transport pilots who work for an airline – a driving while impaired charge can affect the pilot's ability to maintain his or her certificate to fly, and can result in professional consequences that are far more catastrophic than the normal criminal consequences of a first-time DWI.
In addition, pilots need to handle the entire DWI process differently than other people because of FAA regulations and reporting requirements.
14 CFR 61.15 requires the pilot to report each conviction or administrative action to the FAA. Therefore, a single DWI charge can result in multiple reports to the FAA. While multiple reports arising out of the same incident will not ordinarily result in suspension or revocation of a certificate, a motor vehicle action in two separate driving while impaired incidents can result in revocation or suspension even if the airman was not criminally convicted of any DWI offense.
If not handled correctly, a pilot can find himself Sierra Oscar Lima with the FAA.
How can a pilot handle a DWI arrest?
In North Carolina, a DWI arrest can often result in at least two actions: the administrative procedure (called a civil revocation) taken as an operation of law to temporarily suspend the person's license for 30 days. This action occurs by default, unless the arrestee (pilot) contests the civil revocation.
While ordinarily a DWI civil revocation is resolved by paying a $100 fee for a limited driving privilege and then another $100 at the end of the 30 day period to restore the driving privilege, a pilot should in most cases contest the civil revocation and not simply pay the fees.
That's because if the pilot does not contest the civil revocation, it will be considered an administrative action by the FAA and will require that the pilot send a Notification Letter to the FAA within 60 days of the effective date of the administrative action. Failure to send the Notification Letter will result in other sanctions under 14 CFR 61.15(f).
A airman who refused the Intox EC/IR II machine or was marked as a “refusal” by the chemical analyst should also contest the refusal in most cases because failure to do so will also result in an administrative action reportable to the FAA.
The Consequences of DWI Actions
Part 61, Section 15 does not authorize revocation or suspension for multiple motor vehicle actions arising out of the same incident. However, let's assume a person is charged with a DWI and a refusal. Let's assume the airman does not contest the refusal, but wins the DWI. If, within three years of that action, the airman is arrested and charged with a second DWI, and that person's license is suspended as part of the civil revocation, then the person may face a revocation or suspension of his airman's certificate.
In addition, if the person is employed as a pilot, the person will likely be subject to various sanctions imposed by his employer.
Dealing with a DWI as a Pilot
First, it's important to note that a DWI is potential sign of a substance abuse issue or alcohol-related problem that must be addressed, particularly if the person takes to the skies or is a pilot aircraft carrying other people.
Addressing this issue is paramount because, quite apart of the criminal consequences of the DWI, other lives are potentially at stake and because the FAA medical certificate may be jeopardized.
Second, because of the reporting requirements and the collateral consequences of a DWI to a pilot, an airman should be careful about how he handles the DWI.
Third, all pilots need to be reminded that Part 91, Section 17 (14 CFR 91.17) of the FAR prohibits pilots from operating aircraft while they are under the influence of alcohol, while using any drug (including legally prescribed drugs) that affects a person's faculties in any way contrary to safety, while having a BAC of .04 or greater. In addition, except in an emergency, a pilot may not carry anyone who appears intoxicated or under the influence of drugs (except a medical patient under proper care).
Finally, a pilot (or crewmember) must submit to a BAC at any time if requested by a law enforcement officer in the context of operating an aircraft.