Understanding Your Authority: Handling Sightings and Reports

Federal Aviation Regulations prohibit the unsafe or unauthorized operation of an aircraft, including drones. Unsafe operations may result in substantial civil penalties and possible action against an operator's FAA-issued certificate, or may be subject to criminal response by law enforcement in accordance with Federal, State and local laws or ordinances.

As a law enforcement officer, you are often in the best position to deter, detect and investigate unsafe or unauthorized drone operations.

Handling Complaints Involving UAS

When responding to complaints about drone operations or a situation involving a drone, there are several things to consider. Law enforcement officers should assess the underlying activity in drone complaints – drone operations may also involve activity that is in violation of additional laws (for example, reckless endangerment, voyeurism, or harassment).

Locate the drone operator and determine the type of operation they are performing (recreational or commercial) by objectively assessing the situation and talking to the operator, then determine what level of law enforcement action is required. Depending on the situation, it may involve a violation of FAA regulations and/or state/local laws. Violations can include operating an aircraft without registration or necessary airman certification, operating an aircraft in an unsafe manner so as to endanger persons or property, and can be either administrative or criminal.

FAA's Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP) is your point of contact for Federal, State, local, tribal and international law enforcement agencies in matters of organized crime, drug trafficking, criminal violations, and threats to the national security involving U.S. registered aircraft and FAA certificate holders.

Law Enforcement Resources Video Series

To assist law enforcement personnel with responding to drone incidents, the FAA has created a 3-part video series. This series covers the basics of drone regulations, how to interact with a drone operator when responding to an incident and what you need to know when handling a non-compliant drone operation.

FAA Penalties

The FAA is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace. There are multiple options to fly a drone legally, however if an operator chooses not to follow those requirements, they could face civil penalties and potential criminal prosecution.

Law Enforcement Checklist

FAA's DRONE Law Enforcement Pocket Card helps you identify the necessary steps you need to take to respond to a situation involving a drone.

  • Detect all available elements of the situation; attempt to locate and identify individuals operating the drone. (Look at windows/balconies/roof tops).
  • Report the incident to the FAA Regional Operations Center (ROC). Contact information can be found on the Law Enforcement Pocket Card. Follow-up assistance can be obtained through FAA Law Enforcement Assistance Program special agents.
  • Observe the drone and maintain visibility of the device; look for damage or injured individuals. Note: Battery life is typically 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Notice features: Identify the type of device (fixed-wing/multi-rotor), its size, shape, color, payload (i.e., video equipment), and activity of device.
  • Execute appropriate police action: Maintain a safe environment for general public and first responders. Conduct a field interview, request proof of drone registration, and document ALL details of the event per the guidance provided by the FAA.

Download and print our Law Enforcement Pocket Card (PDF).

Last updated: Tuesday, January 17, 2023