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United States v. Amour

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

March 29, 2018

GUY ST. AMOUR, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 0:17-cr-60001-JIC-1

          Before TJOFLAT, MARTIN, and JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM

         Guy St. Amour appeals his conviction for operating an aircraft with an unapproved fuel system in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 46306(b)(9). He argues that the term "operates an aircraft" covers actions during or imminent to flight. Therefore, he contends, the term does not reach his taxiing and refueling of an aircraft in preparation for a flight on the following day. We disagree. As defined in both the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations-and clarified through the decisions of the Civil Aeronautics Board ("CAB") and the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB")-the term "operate" encompasses the refueling of an aircraft for the purpose of flight.



         St. Amour became licensed as a pilot in 1999 and since then has occasionally worked as a "ferry pilot, " which means that he facilitates the sale of aircraft by flying them to the locations of purchasers. Javier and Rolando Peyrat, two Paraguayans, retained St. Amour's services as a ferry pilot sometime in late 2012 or early 2013. They hired him to fly a Cessna 182 single-engine aircraft, registration number N3482F, from the Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport ("FXE") in Florida to Asunción, Paraguay-a city in the heart of South America.[1] In preparation for this journey of nearly 4, 000 miles, St. Amour sought to outfit N3482F with an auxiliary fuel system of his own design.

         The auxiliary fuel system consisted of a plastic, maritime fuel tank secured with a ratchet strap to the back seat of the aircraft. From the plastic tank ran a clear hose that exited the aircraft through a fitting in the fuselage. The hose ran up the wing and into the fuel tank of the aircraft. It was secured to the wing with duct tape. Inside the cabin, an electric pump pushed fuel from the plastic tank, through the hose, and into the aircraft's fuel tank. The pump was powered by a cigarette lighter in the cockpit.

         St. Amour hired a mechanic at FXE named Raphael Garzon to install this auxiliary fuel system. Garzon, however, failed to complete the installation because he could not install a modified fuel cap in one of the wings, which prevented the fuel line from the plastic tank from being fed into the aircraft's tank. St. Amour thus hired another mechanic named Patricio Farias to finish the job.

         On March 27, 2013, St. Amour taxied N3482F to Farias' hangar at FXE. Farias completed the installation of the fuel system in a few hours for $100. With the installation complete, St. Amour started the aircraft's engine and taxied to a maintenance facility for refueling. Later that day, agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency ("DEA") apprehended St. Amour in front of the maintenance facility on suspicion of drug trafficking.[2]

         During an interview with DEA agents, St. Amour said that he had planned to depart in N3482F for Paraguay between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. the following day, March 28.[3] While the DEA agents neither discovered drugs nor arrested St. Amour, the situation was referred to the Department of Transportation ("DOT"). Much later, in an interview with DOT agents, St. Amour again stated that he had planned to leave for Paraguay the following day and would have but for the intervention of the DEA.


         On January 6, 2017, a one-count indictment was filed against St. Amour for operating an aircraft with knowledge that the auxiliary fuel system did not comply with the regulations and requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA"). See 49 U.S.C. § 46306(b)(9). He was arrested on February 22, 2017.

         In May 2017, St. Amour moved to dismiss the indictment as a matter of law.[4] St. Amour argued that he had not operated N3482F within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. § 46306(b)(9) because the word "operate" in that provision refers only to conduct during or imminent to flight. Based on this construction, St. Amour contended that he did not operate the aircraft because he neither flew nor intended to fly N3482F on March 27; he taxied and fueled the aircraft for a flight the next day. Therefore, in effect, St. Amour advocated for a definition of "operate" that requires a strict "temporal proximity" between the conduct and flight.[5]

         The Government disagreed. It argued that the term "operate" reaches the use of an aircraft to prepare for flight, regardless of when that flight is scheduled. In the Government's view, the use of an aircraft in preparation for or incident to flight constitutes "operation" of that aircraft. To support this interpretation, the Government pointed out that the safety hazards posed by an unauthorized fuel system exist both in the air and on the ground.

         In an order on June 19, 2017, the District Court denied the motion to dismiss the indictment. Before addressing St. Amour's arguments, the District Court noted that "the parties have stipulated to the facts and waived any procedural bar to a merits determination at this stage."[6] The District Court then moved to the merits. It held that the term "operate" is "clearly broader than the more specific concept of 'flying' an aircraft" and that "obtain[ing] fuel for a flight scheduled for the next day constitute[s] 'operation' of an aircraft." In reaching this result, the District Court found the Ninth Circuit's decision in Daily v. Bond, 623 F.2d 624 (9th Cir. 1980) (per curiam), "particularly persuasive because it supports the proposition that [St. Amour's] 'operation' of the aircraft was 'for the purpose of air navigation' because it [was] preparatory to flight." The District Court declined to define "exactly how close in time the operation of an aircraft must be in relation to air navigation to constitute a violation of 49 U.S.C. § 46306(b)(9), " but determined that St. Amour's refueling of the aircraft was "sufficiently connected" to the flight scheduled for the following day.

         After the denial of his motion to dismiss, St. Amour entered a guilty plea but reserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to dismiss.[7] On July 24, 2017, St. Amour filed a notice of appeal challenging the denial of his motion to dismiss. The same as before, St. Amour argues that the term "operate" is ambiguous as defined in the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations and should receive a narrow construction that covers conduct during or imminent to flight.



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