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Florida cannot prosecute pilots for allegedly drinking before flight

Judge: Federal law supersedes state law on pilot qualifications

Thomas Cloyd, right, and Christopher Hughes shown last year.
Thomas Cloyd, right, and Christopher Hughes shown last year.

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A federal judge ruled that Florida cannot prosecute two former America West pilots for operating an aircraft while allegedly intoxicated. CNN's John Zarrella reports (August 6)
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Complaints/arrest affidavits: Thomas Cloyd and Christopher Hughes  (FindLaw document, PDF format)external link

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Florida cannot prosecute two former America West pilots for operating an aircraft while allegedly intoxicated because federal law, not Florida law, applies in the case.

A spokesman for the Miami-Dade County state's attorney's office said it would appeal the federal ruling.

Christopher Hughes and Thomas Cloyd have been fired from their jobs with America West Airlines. The pilots were at the controls of their America West jetliner on July 1, 2002, with 124 passengers on board a Miami-to-Phoenix flight when Miami-Dade police recalled the plane and arrested both Cloyd and Hughes.

A security guard had called police after the pilots had gone through a checkpoint.

Federal Judge Patricia Seitz issued a written order upholding the pilots' motion to dismiss the state charges against them. The order said federal law pre-empts state law in the area of pilot qualifications where there is no actual loss of life or injury or damage to property.

"The state lacks jurisdiction to prosecute them for matters that are solely within the jurisdiction of the federal government," she wrote.

The pilots took their case to federal court because they believed FAA regulations superseded Florida law in the area of pilot qualifications and capacity, and because in their employment as pilots they were governed by federal law.

Federal DUI standards also are higher: A .10 percent blood alcohol level, compared with the state standard of .08.

Both Cloyd, who had a blood alcohol level of .091 percent at the time of the flight, and Hughes, who had .084, state officials said, were legally drunk under Florida standards but not under the federal standard.

FAA rules prohibit a pilot to fly with a blood alcohol level greater than .04. Federal law allows criminal prosecution at .10.

"Obviously, this is not the decision we had wished and we will be appealing the decision," said Ed Griffith, spokesman for Miami-Dade State's Attorney Katherine Rundle, who was out of town.

Defense attorneys for Cloyd and Hughes issued a joint statement saying, "Mr. Cloyd and Mr. Hughes are very grateful and very pleased with the court's ruling today."

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