I am frequently contacted by airmen regarding the potential implications various criminal matters may have on their airman certificates. Not surprisingly, most criminal defense attorneys have no idea about the impact certain criminal convictions may have on an airman’s ability to continue to fly. Unfortunately, without this knowledge, when a criminal defendant is offered a plea deal that would be considered a “good deal” under normal circumstances, that deal could adversely affect the airman’s ability to keep flying.
For example, if an airman is facing a drug-related felony charge and the prosecutor offers to allow the airman to enter a guilty plea to a drug related misdemeanor charge, this may be considered a good deal. That is, until you consider the impact that plea deal could have on the airman’s operating privileges. Unfortunately, such a plea would still result in a conviction for a drug-related offense, albeit a misdemeanor. The airman would then be required to disclose this conviction to the FAA on his or her next application for medical certificate. Under FAR 61.15, the FAA could then, and quite likely would, deny the airman’s application for a medical certificate, as well as any other applications for certificates, ratings or authorizations for a period up to one year. The FAA could also suspend or revoke any other certificate held by the airman. Not such a good deal after all.
What could an airman do in this situation? Aside from the obvious answer that the airman should avoid ending up in this situation, the first thing the airman needs to do is to educate his or her criminal defense attorney regarding the effects a criminal conviction might have on the airman’s ability to fly. If the airman can obtain a plea deal that “continues” the criminal charge without the airman having to plead guilty, that may be the best “deal” he or she can receive under the circumstances. (This is sometimes referred to as a “continuance for dismissal” or a “continuance without prosecution” and does not result in a conviction.). However, if the prosecutor isn’t amenable to such a plea and is looking for a conviction, the next option would be to try and reach a deal under which the airman enters a plea of guilty to a charge that is not drug-related. Although the conviction would still be reportable on the airman’s next application for medical certificate, such a conviction would not be addressed by FAR 61.15.
Defending yourself in a criminal prosecution is no easy matter. However, in order to do so effectively, you need to have all of the information you need in order to protect your rights. If you can hire a criminal defense attorney who understands aviation, that helps. If you can’t, you may want to hire an aviation attorney to advise/consult with your criminal defense attorney to make sure you have the information you need to properly defend yourself and to protect your ability to fly.