HOUSTON — A Texas-based group involved in searches for missing persons around the nation said it will resume using drones in its work after a federal appeals court ruled on Friday that a warning the group received to stop using them didn't have any legal consequences.
Texas EquuSearch had sued the Federal Aviation Administration, seeking to overturn what the group described as an order it had been sent in February by email prohibiting the nonprofit organization from using drones.
While a three-judge panel for a federal appeals court Washington, D.C., dismissed the lawsuit, Brendan Schulman, an attorney for Texas EquuSearch, said that was good for the group.
In its ruling, the appeals court said it can't review the case because the email Texas EquuSearch had received didn't represent the FAA's final conclusion on the use of drones. Final rules on drone use are expected next year.
"The challenged email communication from a Federal Aviation Administration employee did not represent the consummation of the agency's decision-making process, nor did it give rise to any legal consequences," the panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit wrote in its two-page order.
Schulman said while the ruling doesn't resolve the legal issues related to drone use, it clarified there was no valid order from the FAA prohibiting Texas EquuSearch from using drones.
"Texas EquuSearch is free to resume its humanitarian use of drones," he said.
The volunteer group is financed through private donations and has participated in such high-profile cases as the search for Natalee Holloway, the U.S. teenager who disappeared in 2005 in Aruba, and the search for 2-year-old Caylee Anthony in Florida.
"The court's decision in favor of the FAA regarding the Texas EquuSearch matter has no bearing on the FAA's authority to regulate" drones, the FAA said in a statement. "The FAA remains legally responsible for the safety of the national airspace system. This authority is designed to protect users of the airspace as well as people and property on the ground."
The FAA said it may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a drone "in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system."
Tim Miller, Texas EquuSearch's founder, said he was pleased with the appeals court's decision.
"I'm thrilled we can go and fly again," Miller said by phone from Lake Travis in Central Texas, where his group was searching for a missing swimmer.
But Miller said he was also upset his group has had to turn down several requests for help because his group wasn't able to use drones.
The organization is credited with returning 300 missing people alive to their loved ones. Miller has said they've also recovered the remains of nearly 180 people who had been reported missing. He credited 11 of those recoveries to drone use beginning in 2005.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/juanlozano70 .