UAV Law – The Role of Law Enforcement

Role of Law Enforcement

Excerpt from U.S. Dept of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration Law Enforcement Guidance for Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations

The FAA promotes voluntary compliance by educating individual UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws. The FAA also has a number of enforcement tools available including warning notices, letters of correction, and civil penalties. The FAA may take enforcement action against anyone who conducts an unauthorized UAS operation or operates a UAS in a way that endangers 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.

However, as noted above, State and local Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA) are often in the best position to deter, detect, immediately investigate, and, as appropriate, pursue enforcement actions to stop unauthorized UAS operations. Although the FAA retains the responsibility for enforcing FAAs regulations, FAA aviation safety inspectors, who are the agency’s principal field elements responsible for following up on these unauthorized and/or unsafe activities, will often be unable to immediately travel to the location of an incident.

While the FAA must exercise caution not to mix criminal law enforcement with the FAA’s administrative safety enforcement function, the public interest is best served by coordination and fostering mutual understanding and cooperation between governmental entities with law enforcement responsibilities. Although there are Federal criminal statutes that may be implicated by some UAS operations (see e.g., 49 U.S.C. § 46307), most violations of the FAA’s regulations may be addressed through administrative enforcement measures. As with any other civil or criminal adjudication, successful enforcement will depend on development of a complete and accurate factual report contemporaneous with the event.

Although certainly not an exhaustive list, law enforcement officials, first responders and others can provide invaluable assistance to the FAA by taking the actions outlined below:

(1) Witness Identification and Interviews. Local law enforcement is in the best position to identify potential witnesses and conduct initial interviews, documenting what they observed while the event is still fresh in their minds. In addition, local law enforcement is in an optimum position to secure all information necessary for our safety inspectors to contact these witnesses in any subsequent FAA investigation. Administrative proceedings often involve very technical issues; therefore, we expect our own safety inspectors will need to re-interview most witnesses. We are mindful that in many jurisdictions, state law may prohibit the transmission of witness statements to third parties, including the FAA. In those circumstances it is extremely important that the FAA be able to locate and conduct independent interviews of these individuals.

(2) Identification of Operators. Law enforcement is in the best position to contact the suspected operators of the aircraft, and any participants or support personnel accompanying the operators. The FAA has previously exercised enforcement discretion in not requiring persons to register sUAS used exclusively as model aircraft, so educating the community on these requirements will be an ongoing process. We continue to identify operators engaged in commercial operations who have not received authorization from the FAA to do so. However, in our enforcement proceedings, we bear the burden of proof, and showing who actually is operating the unmanned aircraft is critical. Therefore, evidentiary thresholds must be met even when using data or video acquired via the internet. Likewise, the purpose for the operation (such as in support of a commercial venture, to further some business interest, or to secure compensation for their services) may become an important element in determining what regulations, if any, may have been violated by the operation. Identification and interview of suspected operators early on will help immeasurably to advance enforcement efforts.

(3) Viewing and Recording the Location of the Event. Pictures taken in close proximity to the event are often helpful in describing light and weather conditions, any damage or injuries, and the number and density of people on the surface, particularly at public events or in densely populated areas. During any witness interviews, use of fixed landmarks that may be depicted on maps, diagrams or photographs immeasurably help in fixing the position of the aircraft, and such landmarks also should be used as a way to describe lateral distances and altitude above the ground, structures or people (e.g. below the third floor of Building X, below the top of the oak tree located Y, anything that gives reference points for lay witnesses).

(4) Identifying Sensitive Locations, Events, or Activities. The FAA maintains a variety of security-driven airspace restrictions around the country to help protect sensitive locations, events, and activities through Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR), Prohibited Areas, and other mechanisms such as the Washington, DC Flight Restricted Zone (DC FRZ). UAS operations, including Model Aircraft flights, are generally prohibited within these defined volumes of airspace. LEAs should become familiar with the steady-state airspace restrictions active within their area of responsibility, along with as-needed TFRs, which could be instituted to help protect sensitive events (e.g., major gatherings of elected officials) and activities (e.g., Presidential movements). If there is any question as to whether a TFR has been established in a given location, contact the nearest air traffic facility or flight service station for further information or visit for a graphic representation of TFRs locatable by state and effective dates.

(5) Notification. Immediate notification of an incident, accident or other suspected violation to one of the FAA Regional Operation Centers (ROC) located around the country is valuable to the timely initiation of the FAA’s investigation. These centers are manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with personnel who are trained in how to contact appropriate duty personnel during non-business hours when there has been an incident, accident or other matter that requires timely response by FAA employees. A list of these centers and telephone numbers is included as Attachment B to this letter. FAA Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP) Special Agents are also available to provide investigation support. LEAP Special Agent contact information is included as Attachment C to this letter.

(6) Evidence Collection. Identifying and preserving any public or private security systems that may provide photographic or other visual evidence of UAS operations, including video or still picture security systems can provide essential evidence to the FAA. Many times these systems do not permanently store information but erase it as the system recycles at a given interval. Local law enforcement is in the best position to inquire and make initial requests to identify and preserve this form of evidence or obtain legal process for securing this evidence in the context of an investigation of a possible violation of state criminal law. In addition, some UAS may be marked with identification numbers (“N-numbers”) signifying FAA registration under a commercial or governmental authorization.

All other UAS weighing greater than 0.55 pounds and operated for hobby or recreational purposes are required to be marked with a registration number assigned to the owner. The presence or lack of these identification numbers may be significant in an FAA investigation. For example, an operator may state that he or she is conducting an approved commercial activity, which usually requires registered aircraft. However, the absence of registration markings on the UAS may indicate that the aircraft is not registered, meaning the operation may not be authorized. Note that identification numbers may not be conspicuous from a distance because of the size and nontraditional configuration of some UAS. The registered owners of UAS operating under an approved commercial or governmental authorization bearing identification numbers can be found by searching for the N-number on the FAA’s website: Hobby UAS greater than 0.55 pounds must be marked with a registration number and the operator must provide evidence of registration upon request by law enforcement. These numbers can be verified by contacting an FAA Regional Operations Center, the Washington Operations Center or your FAA LEAP Special Agent.

This document/post/article is not to be considered as legal advice. Content and information contained herein is subject to changes, modifications, and may contain inaccuracies or out-of-date information. As with any legal matter or other matters of importance, consultation with an attorney or professional is the best course of action.