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Huerta v. Haughwout

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 18, 2016

MICHAEL HUERTA, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration Petitioner,
v.
AUSTIN HAUGHWOUT and BRET HAUGHWOUT, Respondents.

          RULING GRANTING PETITION FOR ENFORCEMENT OF ADMINISTRATIVE SUBPOENAS

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer, United States District Judge.

         This case concerns the investigatory authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with respect to small unmanned flying devices (or “drones”) that are owned by private citizens. The Administrator of the FAA seeks enforcement of subpoenas served against respondents Austin and Bret Haughwout. The subpoenas are designed to investigate the apparent use of weaponized drones as shown in well-publicized YouTube videos. Because I conclude that the FAA has a legitimate purpose for its subpoenas and that the subpoenas are otherwise appropriate in scope, I will grant the petition.

         Background

         In 2015, two videos were uploaded in the username of “Hogwit” to YouTube. The first video is just 14 seconds long. It shows a small, unmanned flying device that hovers several feet above the ground in a wooded area. The device is about 18-inches long, and it is kept aloft by means of four horizontally spinning rotors. A handgun is attached to the front of the device, and the video shows the handgun firing several times.[1]

         The second video is about four minutes long. It shows a circular, hoop-like, flying device that hovers above ground in a clearing in the woods with a house that is visible in the background. The device has eight horizontally spinning rotors, and it bobs up and down throughout the video to about a maximum of eight feet off the ground. Some kind of a flame-throwing contraption is attached to the device. The bulk of the video shows the flame-thrower spewing intense streams of fire to scorch a turkey carcass that is mounted on a horizontal spit about five or six feet off the ground. At times, the tendrils of flame reach out twenty feet or so in length, and they ignite not only the turkey carcass but also wood debris on the ground below it. Parts of the video appear to be shot from a standing location in the clearing next to the device, and parts of the video appear to be a close-up view from the vantage point of a camera that seems to be mounted on the device itself. The video prominently bears a corporate moniker “HobbyKing.com, ” and it begins with the following sardonic caption: “This is how to roast your holiday turkey.”[2]

         Both videos understandably went “viral” and have drawn substantial media attention. The FAA has also opened an investigation. On the basis of the FAA’s belief that the videos and devices in question are traceable to a young man named Austin Haughwout, the FAA has issued administrative subpoenas to Austin Haughwout as well as to his father, Bret Haughwout, who has at times corresponded with the FAA on Austin’s behalf. The Haughwouts live in Clinton, Connecticut, a small town that-so far as the record reflects-is not near any airport or airfield.

         Apart from the FAA investigation, there is no indication that the local or state police have charged or are investigating the Haughwouts in connection with the devices or weapons that appear on the YouTube videos.

         The FAA subpoenas require the Haughwouts to submit to questioning under oath in a deposition to be held at the Office of the United States Attorney in Connecticut and also to produce a wide range of documents that are related to the use and related photography or video of what the subpoenas describe as an “unmanned aircraft system (UAS).” Specifically, the subpoenas require the production of the following documents:

(1) The use of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS);
(2) The purchase and/or use of a flamethrower in conjunction with a UAS;
(3) Internet-based advertisement revenues and/or other compensation obtained by the respondents associated with uploading and/or posting UAS content to www.YouTube.com and/or other video sharing websites;
(4) The date and time of any aerial photographic and/or videography projects conducted by the respondents, using a UAS;
(5) Aerial photographic and/or videography products and/or materials and records obtained through the use or assistance of a UAS relating to any property, building, and/or site;
(6) The brand, model, description, and other identifying data concerning the UAS used for any operation identified in relation ...

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