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 local laws and ordinances.

As a law enforcement officer, you are often in the best position to deter, detect and investigate unsafe or unauthorized drone operations. The FAA’s Law Enforcement Guidance for Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations (PDF) outlines and supports FAA’s partnership with law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Watch the video “Safer Skies: How the FAA Helps Law Enforcement Respond to Reports of Improper Use of UAS

Registration Information

All drones over .55 pounds must be registered with the FAA before flight. Law enforcement and public safety officials may ask drone operators for registration documentation.

Handling Complaints Involving UAS

When responding to complaints about drone or UAS operations or a situation involving a drone, there are several things to consider. Law enforcement officers should focus on the underlying activity in drone complaints – if you take the drone out of the incident you can apply already existing law to infractions committed (for example, reckless endangerment, voyeurism, or harassment).

First, locate the drone operator and determine the type of operation they are performing (hobby/recreational, commercial, or public use) 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 manor 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.

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 he/she could face civil penalties and potential criminal prosecution.

Law Enforcement Checklist

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

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). Follow-up assistance can be obtained through FAA Law Enforcement Assistance Program special agents.

Observe the UAS 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 the general public and first responders. Conduct a field interview, request proof of UAS registration, and document ALL details of the event per the guidance provided by the FAA.

Download and print the FAA Law Enforcement Pocket Card (PDF).

Download the FAA Law Enforcement Guidance Card for Handling Drone Incidents (PDF).

Source: FAA.gov